Will natural gas pipelines crowd out renewables?

Dan Upham

In the 1989 classic Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character hears a voice in a cornfield whispering, “If you build it, they will come.” Befitting a family movie, he did build a baseball field and spectators did indeed come.

Applying this vintage pop culture expression to the natural gas infrastructure landscape of today is more appropriate than you may think.

Because of the variability of renewable energy sources, natural gas-fired power plants can serve an important role as a back-up source that can be quickly ramped up when the sun is down or the  wind stops blowing.

The question is, will natural gas pipelines and power plants we designed for that role - or will the massive build-out of the nation’s gas infrastructure system, to the tune of $150 billion, make us rely on fossil fuels for decades to come?

It’s a pertinent query, considering that 46 percent of the pipeline that exists today sits idle, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

So before we rush to build more at great upfront expense and greater long-term environmental cost, we should remove regulatory and market barriers that keep us from taking full advantage of the massive infrastructure we already have.

“If we don’t, then billions of dollars of capital sunk into new pipelines will fall needlessly on ratepayer shoulders, and potentially constrain the ongoing expansion of clean, low-cost renewable technologies,” writes my colleague Jonathan Peress.

46 percent of the pipeline that exists today sits idle.

This takes us back to the “If you build it, they will come,” analogy.

If we build out our natural gas infrastructure properly, more renewables will indeed come. If we build it out the wrong way, it may stunt the renewable industry’s booming growth.

This is because an overbuilt regional gas pipeline system may, in effect, lock in fossil fuels for a long time and crowd out investments in clean energy.

Just like in Field of Dreams, we need to pay close attention to how we design the thing we build – and make sure we have a long-term strategy that gradually moves us away from dirty power sources and toward a more sustainable future.

See Peress’s full post for more details.

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