The New York metropolitan region’s reliance on natural gas to generate electricity has surged in the last decade, climbing to 68% in 2012 from 53% in 2002. While that has checked the rise in greenhouse-gas emissions, mainly because natural gas is cleaner-burning than oil, emissions are still far above the level that scientists say is sustainable. The region’s big swing toward natural gas risks leaving us with a fleeting sense of comfort over burning slightly less noxious fuel, while postponing the significant adoption of renewable power.
Between 2002 and 2012, natural gas generating capacity climbed by more than 10,000 megawatts in the tri-state region, enough to power 8.7 million homes. During that same period, the share of power generated from renewable sources such as sun, wind or water has essentially stagnated at around 3%.
Natural gas has displaced more than 4,000 megawatts of oil-based generation. Gas is the primary fuel powering 55% of all new plants built since 2001, and 63% of all new capacity added since 2001. Coal still accounts for 17% of our energy capacity in the region, a figure little changed by the upsurge in natural gas usage.
Although natural gas is cleaner than coal and oil, its greenhouse gas emissions are still 10 times that of solar photovoltaics, almost 40 times that of wind power and 100 times that of hydropower.
The danger we face is that natural gas, which for now is relatively inexpensive and abundant thanks to the U.S. fracking boom, has undercut efforts to elevate the still-nascent renewables sector. Yet it will take a lot more than natural gas to transition to a low-carbon future. We will need to substantially reduce our use fossil fuels in the tri-state region and beyond in order to reach our emissions targets. -- Laura Tolkoff