Sunday, February 23, 2014

"Bridge Fuel" - Careless Talk Costs Actual Lives

When the current set of coal-fired power plant updates are completed in 2017, it is estimated that South Africa will derive 94% of its energy from coal (, and wrest the position from Australia as 7th highest producer of CO2 from power-generation in the world. Our award winning line-up includes a suite of mammoth coal-fired plants ranging from 4100-4800MW, including two of the 4th biggest coal-fired power plants in the world. Each of these plants produces more energy and pollution, and consumes more coal than America's largest power plant, the 3520MW Scherer Power Plant. This power plant is currently under investigation for for coal ash pond leeching, drinking water contamination, and air pollution (

A study in the USA by the Clean Air Task Force estimated that pollution from coal-fired power plants accounts for more than 13,000 premature deaths, 20,000 heart attacks, and 1.6 million lost workdays. The cost of this: an estimated $100 billion annually. This is about 1/4 of the annual GDP of South Africa. So unlike the air around these power plants, it is clear that the power-generating parastatal Eskom and our governmental representatives haven't exactly had our best interests - or at least our health at heart. But now they're looking to the future, in terms of air at least, a cleaner, fracked future. But is it cleaner, or is Susan Shabangu and Zuma doing the people and economy of South Africa another grave disservice by decisively pursuing fracking?

The jury is out. We should no longer condone the use of the term "bridge fuel" when cited in conjunction with fracking. Far from a "sturdy bridge to a cleaner energy future" as stated by the editor of the Wisconsin State Journal (, building an economy based on methane, together with its fracking bedfellow, appears to be an uncontrolled spin away from a healthy environment.

Romm has presented an excellent review of the amount of methane released during fracking, and the impact of that methane on global warming. The article is nothing short of breathtaking. By using fracking to extract methane as a "bridge fuel", the number of years before net climate benefits are achieved rapidly increases above 3% leaking rate. At a leakage rate of 5.4%, it would take 50 years for a full-replacement of coal plants with natural gas plants to show any climate benefits. At the same leakage rate, converting a fleet of either cars or trucks to Natural Gas would be worse for the climate for 140 years. However, given that the natural gas leakage rates from three separate NOAA studies were 4%6-12%, and 17%, its time to get VERY WORRIED about the promotion of natural gas as a "bridge fuel".

Figure: Maximum life-cycle natural gas leak rate as a function of the number of years needed to achieve net climate benefits after switching from coal power to natural gas. The three curves represent: single emissions pulses (dotted lines); the service life of a power plant, 50 years (dashed lines); and a permanent fleet conversion (solid lines). Image and caption from Romm, 2014.
The US is frequently touted as having slashed nearly 80 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2012 by replacing 160 million MWh of coal electricity with natural gas. That is significant, and could even warrant justification South Africa's own fracking pursuits... Were it not for these two offsets—methane leakage, and the replacement of hydro and nuclear by gas. These two offsets together wipe out the entire CO2 reduction from coal-to-gas fuel switching; methane leakage accounts for more than two thirds of that offset (
Romm's message about fracking as a "bridge fuel" is clear: "natural gas doesn’t just displace coal, it also displaces nuclear power, renewable energy, and energy efficiency. So it appears quite safe to say that natural gas simply has no net climate benefit whatsoever in any timescale that matters to humanity."

So, be careful when you use the B-F word. Careless talk costs lives!
Twitter: @TNBloganist


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