Natural Gas Outshines Solar, Blows Past Wind

Natural gas is by far the best the most efficient way to produce electricity, according to a recent report by the Manhattan Institute.

The report indicates that dollar-for-dollar, investment in natural gas generates 16 times the amount of power as solar panels, and eight times the amount of windmills:

At today’s costs, $1 million invested in a modern wind turbine will produce, over 30 years of operation, about 50 million kWh (kilowatt-hours). And $1 million spent on utility-grade solar panels will produce about 25 million kWh over 30 years. Meanwhile, $1 million spent on a shale rig will produce enough natural gas to generate 400 million kWh over the same 30 years.

These numbers should alert policy makers that solar and wind subsidies are high-cost and low-yield. Likewise, discouraging investment in natural gas by enacting new taxes and complex regulations can drain the fuel from our economy's tank.

Gas-fired generation is our most consistent energy source. A new gas-fired generating plant can operate as much as 90 percent of the time, compared to solar and wind, which in the Mid-Atlantic region can run at 17 and 29 percent, respectively.

The difference in efficiencies will only grow, according the Manhattan Institute, because the production of shale gas is still in its early stage of development:

With digital gas and oil technologies still in the early days, we can expect to see the rapid progress of drilling productivity (energy output per rig) continue. Output per rig (wherein rig costs having remained relatively constant) is doubling every three years. Last year, rig productivity jumped from 30% to 40% across the various shale plays. No other energy source is experiencing technological progress on this scale.

Digital technologies are squeezing more money from rocks. While shale tech, like all technologies, will reach physics limits, the data make it clear that those limits are still a long way off. The underlying geophysics points to a roughly 500% gap between what today’s shale tech can extract and what nature ultimately permits. EIA’s (Energy Information Administration’s) “high tech” forecast envisions natural gas production increasing more than four times as much in the coming two decades than it did over the past two.

Meanwhile, solar and wind are nearing their physical limits of operational efficiency, says the institute:

Solar arrays and wind turbines are so efficient now that they are approaching the point where there is no more energy in the wind or arriving from the sun to be converted into electricity.  Thus, one sees underlying progress in improving efficiencies now measured in single-digit percentages.

The Manhattan Institute says future growth of alternative sources rests largely on “public tolerance for subsidies.” Gas use, on the other hand, is almost certain to grow because of its efficiencies and the increasing demand for electricity at home and abroad. Foreign demand is expected to increase over the next two decades by an amount equal to the entire U.S. grid.

Political leaders should be facilitating the development of Pennsylvania gas to take advantage of these opportunities, not advancing a severance tax or diverting taxpayer resources to marginal technologies that provide less than two percent of the world’s energy.