Richard S. Stein: Is natural gas the best ‘bridge’ energy source before renewables can meet demand?

Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2014
To the editor:

A proposed natural gas pipeline would run through parts of Hampshire and Franklin counties. There are positive and negative aspects of decisions about this. Most agree that it is essential that we reduce dependence on fossil fuels because of their presumed contribution to greenhouse gas that causes global warming. The pipeline would help facilitate natural gas use, which would be a reason for opposition.

However, abandonment of fossil fuels, including natural gas, accompanied by abandonment of nuclear energy sources, would increase dependence on renewable sources. Are they capable of assuming this role?

A rough estimate is that if we abandon these undesirable energy sources, at present levels of growth, it may take as much as nine years for renewables to be able provide for energy at the present rate of use.

We must consider what to do during this period. One desirable approach is to use less energy. My guess is that we may be able to reduce consumption by as much as 50 percent.

More rapid development of renewables requires more funding which should be fostered, but my guess is that we may have to make do with a “bridge” source for several years.

The most likely one is natural gas, which is a fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide when burned, but a better one than coal or oil in that it is less polluting. While natural gas is available in our area and cheaper than other fossils, demand for a limited supply keeps increasing, resulting in an increase in cost so that it will become less competitive.

Can we meet the demand for natural gas in our area? The proponents of the New England pipeline contend we cannot. If a pipeline proves necessary, its scale should be minimized and it should be well-regulated to avoid atmospheric pollution from leaked methane. If this is gas from fracking, regulations should avoid a harmful environmental impact.

In any case, the pipeline will cost money and will compete with the need to develop renewable energy sources. This must be considered in achieving the best balance.

Richard S. Stein


The writer is the Goessmann Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.