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Out West student blog

Natural Gas

Touring the Lodi Natural Gas plant with its leading manager.

By Chris Escobedo
Alternative Spring Break 2017

This report was produced during the 2017 Alternative Spring Break course Environmental Policy in California. During winter quarter, students learned about environmental policy in California from a variety of Stanford faculty. Subsequently, over the course of spring break, the class traveled to Monterey and Sacramento to meet with policymakers, stakeholders, and visit energy and water facilities.

The production of natural gas has been heralded as the future of fossil-fuel energy for decades. It releases much cleaner emissions than the burning of coal and oil, and does so at a much more efficient rate. Although it still releases carbon dioxide, it does so by the process of converting methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that has much more of an impact on climate change than carbon dioxide would. However, with the push towards renewables such as wind and solar, it seems unnecessary to even include natural gas plants in our energy portfolio. Why does California rely on natural gas as its highest contributor to energy production, and why might this number grow? What we must consider is that energy resources and the way they interact with the grid is inherently much more complicated than would seem.

Having the incredible opportunity to tour the Lodi Natural Gas plant with its leading manager gave our group the knowledge to realize these intrinsic complexities. The plant itself was a “combined-cycle” natural gas plant that is much more efficient in nature than natural gas plants that lack the extra “steam collecting” component. These systems use the excess heat from the energy production to produce steam and more energy. However, we also learned that this technology was becoming less common, even as it is becoming more efficient and advanced. The reason stems from the fact that they have different “ramp-up” times. Essentially the steam-collecting gas plant takes about an hour to get started from inception, whereas the cheaper plants, referred to by the manager as “peakers”, take only about ten minutes. The peakers do not collect the extra heat energy and are cheaper, but therefore produce a larger amount of carbon dioxide. For this to explain the prevalence of each distinct plant, we had to learn a bit about the energy issues in California.

California has installed an exceptional amount of solar utilities for energy production through numerous policy incentives and market-driven growth. Although this has largely been a success in the fight against greenhouse-gas production and global warming, issues have arrived. The “duck curve” currently plagues California. This term refers to the complex reality that solar has caused within the energy sector. Solar is only available during sunlight hours and is at its strongest around noon. The highest energy demands, however, happen to occur both before and after solar is at peak production. Solar can handle all energy needs during the day, but when people need it more, it is not available. For this reason, natural gas has been hailed as the bridge fuel to be used in conjunction with solar. Natural gas energy production can fill in the gaps where solar, and other renewables, are currently lacking. More than that, it can deal with the sharp increase in energy demand as solar shuts off. However, the fluctuation of solar is not always predictable. Clouds and storms can make solar much less efficient. For these reasons, and for their ability to ramp up quickly after sunset, the peakers are becoming more common.

Natural gas clearly has a role to play in the transition to renewable energy and has already done wonders in shutting down dirty coal plants. Its role as a bridge fuel becomes apparent with the onset of the “duck curve”. Ultimately, we hope for a future of only renewable resources. This can be considered realistic, as the technology of energy storage is quickly advancing and can enhance the use of solar energy production. However, until then, there is still much to be done within the realm of natural gas production. Peakers are preferred for their quick ramping ability. The ramp up of steam-collecting plants has already shortened by hours within the last couple decades. If it could be shortened to compete with the ramping of peakers, then the peakers could add the technology to use the excess heat energy and greatly increase the their efficiency. Natural gas will have its role for now as a bridge fuel, but it must be handled in the most efficient way possible.

For the past 30 years, Alternative Breaks@Stanford have allowed undergraduates to explore complex social and cultural issues through a week-long immersive program. In 2017, the Bill Lane Center for the American West was pleased to support an Alternative Spring Break co-led by one of our Sophomore College alums, Matthew Cohen, and Elizabeth Trinh. Between winter and spring quarters, Matt and Elizabeth led a group of 12 students studying Environmental Policy in California, focused on climate change’s effects the Monterey Bay Peninsula. This series of blog posts highlights their experiences meeting with local leaders in Monterey and policymakers in Sacramento.

Read more at the Out West Student Blog »

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