Low natural gas prices coupled with discoveries of abundant shale gas reserves have made the last 18 months an exciting time for energy in the United States. Until mid-2009, investors were scrambling to find a low cost, reliable fuel source that could replace coal-fired electricity generation. Even with the decreasing Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) of renewables like wind, solar, and nuclear, coal-fired power plants – which account for 40% of U.S. power generation and 80% of the industries CO2 emissions – were seen by investors as the safest choice for new plant construction, due to low coal prices and a stable, domestically produced supply.
These conditions have been fundamentally altered, causing a rippling effect throughout the entire domestic energy industry. As my colleagues at AEL Elizabeth Campbell and Sam Lederer have reported, technological advancements in drilling have opened up vast reserves of natural gas from shale formations. These shale gas reserves are expected to account for 34% of total natural gas production in 2035, doubling from 18% in 2008. According to Frank Verrastro and Conor Branch of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), shale gas discoveries have led to a “broad consensus that our nation has enough domestic supplies of natural gas to power the U.S. for generations.”
Natural gas presents utilities and investors with a cleaner alternative to coal at around the same cost. However, this is a value proposition that makes some clean energy proponents nervous. Indeed, some utility-scale wind, nuclear, and solar projects will now face stiff competition from natural gas-fired electricity generation plants. But in other ways, increasing supplies of natural gas might be a blessing in disguise for clean energy technologies. Below are some key points as to what shale gas means to the U.S. energy landscape, and specifically its impacts on cleantech.