The unfortunate myth of 'renewables now!'

"The greatest homage we can pay to truth is to use it."

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century American philosopherand essayist


"We don't need liquefied natural gas and new pipelines — we should rely on renewable energy instead."

This idea is often voiced by those who oppose — at all costs — any and all new energy infrastructure in the Northwest. Indeed, it would make for a great feel-good story — if it weren't based upon such a completely false choice.

A disturbingly large number of energy-development opponents live in a particular fantasy world in which the promise of renewable energy is instead a panacea, readily at hand to meet all energy needs. Hydro, solar and wind, they tell us, are up to the challenge right now and into the foreseeable future of keeping our lights on and powering our region's economy.

Reality argues otherwise.

Here's the truth: Renewable sources of electric energy that can be reasonably expected to come online over the next 20 years will be fully consumed by the task of generating electricity to meet about 25 percent of regional demand. Under the rosiest of scenarios, current and near-term renewable energy sources will not come close to providing enough electric generation for our region by themselves. Public and private investment, driven by President Obama's ambitious renewable-energy agenda, may someday yield affordable, reliable renewable energy at the scale necessary to meet the other 75 percent of our electric energy need — but that day is still far off. In addition, a large share of greenhouse gases come from burning oil in vehicles, and natural gas is still the best alternative to gasoline available today for broad use in transportation.

This is precisely why natural gas must be the "blue bridge" to the green future we all hope for. Today, natural gas is increasingly replacing coal for the generation of electricity and oil for vehicles. Forty percent of Oregon's electricity comes from burning coal. In the case of applications such as space and water-heating, steam production and cooking, direct use of natural gas is more efficient than using electricity to perform the task. In fact, there is no "renewable" substitute for natural gas in space-heating and water-heating applications.

The truth is, natural gas helps make renewable energy sources far more predictable and cost-effective sources of electricity. Hydro, solar and wind are all intermittent resources; that is, when the reservoirs are low, the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine, some other form of electric generation is needed to meet demand. Natural gas generation is able to meet peak demand for electricity when renewable sources are not available. Today natural gas provides a low-carbon complement to renewable energy, ensuring electric power reliability as on-demand gas-fired generation backs up renewable sources.

Absent abundant supplies of natural gas, the region simply will not be able to move away from coal and rely on renewable sources of electric generation without facing reliability issues that could result in blackouts. During this winter's cold snap, natural gas again was the backstop. Approximately 25 percent of the electricity being generated by Avista Utilities during the December 2008 cold snap, for example, came from natural-gas combustion turbines.

Natural gas is even more indispensable to biofuel production. Biofuels are made by cooking an organic feedstock, such as corn or switchgrass, to make a liquid fuel, such as biodiesel. The cooking process relies on (what else?) natural gas as the energy source.

To suggest that Oregon and Washington can meet short-term energy challenges by relying solely on renewable forms of energy is a simplistic, inaccurate and wrongheaded claim by those who oppose building additional natural-gas infrastructure. The idea that we can snap our fingers and create a world completely dependent upon renewable sources of energy flies in the face of reality.

It is irresponsible for LNG opponents and public officials alike to play fast and loose with the facts regarding the current limitations of renewable energy. It is regrettable that they choose to argue with half-truths that Oregon and Washington can reject new natural-gas infrastructure, and still build the very energy future they claim to be supporting.

We humbly submit that they get their facts straight.

Edward Finklea is executive director of Energy Action Northwest, a business and labor coalition that advocates rational energy policy.

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