Eni has published the economic impact of natural gas on coal power. These has been studied for decades, however much less research has been conducted on how it might affect the emerging solar power market. Discover more below:
Solar power is one of humanity’s best hopes for decarbonizing the energy sector. Along with wind, the sun’s rays are the most readily available source of clean energy on the planet…
Within the past 20 years, solar power has grown from a niche product to a significant presence in the global energy market. In 2000, the world’s installed solar power capacity was around one megawatt—now that figure stands at 305 gigawatts, approximately one percent of the total installed global energy capacity. But despite its recent growth, the future success of solar power is far from assured, with some analysts predicting a “multi-year” slowdown in the global solar market beginning this year. The continued success of solar will hinge on various factors, including policy initiatives and research and development. But recent studies suggest that the development of certain fossil fuel technologies—and in particular natural gas—could also help to keep solar power moving upwards.
Gas and solar are good business partners
The economic impact of natural gas on coal power has been studied for decades, however much less research has been conducted on how it might affect the emerging solar power market. Recently, various studies have begun to shed light on how gas and solar interact at the economic level, and the findings suggest that a surprising synergy could exist between the two technologies.
In 2016, a study published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed the growth of “fast-reacting” natural gas power, alongside renewable energy technologies, mostly solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power, between 1990 and 2013. The researchers, led by Elena Verdolini of the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change and the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, used economic data from 26 developed nations, including the United States, Canada, Japan and most of Western Europe to analyze how the two energy types behaved in parallel. The results of the study showed that a large correlation existed between the growth of fast-reacting fossil fuels (FRF), of which natural gas is the most widely used, and the growth of renewable energy. Verdolini and her colleagues found that, on average, for every one percent increase in the share of FRF, renewable energy generation increased by 0.88 percent—almost a 1:1 ratio.
They also concluded that, in the absence of economically viable storage options “countries where FRF capacity was available were more likely to invest in renewable energy generation.” The study was particularly robust, given the long dataset and wide range of countries studied. It was widely reported in the media at the time, and prompted the Washington Post to run the headline “Turns out wind and solar have a secret friend: Natural gas.”
Solar power is one of humanity’s best hopes for decarbonizing the energy sector. Along with wind, the sun’s rays are the most readily available source of clean energy on the planet. Later in 2016, the evidence for a positive connection between natural gas and solar power was strengthened even further.
A study conducted by the Foundation for Renewable Energy and Environment (FREE), New York, analyzed the variations in energy costs from solar PV and natural gas in the United States occurring over a five year period between 2010 and 2015. The research was partly motivated by concerns that falling natural gas prices in the US might be causing a “displacement effect” towards solar, which could slow or even reverse its growth, in a similar way that natural gas has been found to displace the use of coal power. But far from displacing it, the researchers found that natural gas exerted a broadly positive effect on the development of solar power. The study concluded that the natural gas and solar markets “can exhibit complementarity at multiple levels,” and that “low gas prices could benefit solar energy growth.”
These signs from the US market bode well for the potential of natural gas to boost solar PV, however more research is necessary. Some previous studies suggested that in countries including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa show that various fossil fuels, including natural gas, are negatively associated with renewable growth in these countries.
Gas and solar power work well together
The reasons for the broad synergy between natural gas and solar power are related to an inherent compatibility between natural gas and solar power. For example, the authors of the FREE study note that in the short run “low natural gas price benefits renewables by reducing the overall levelized costs of energy, thus deepening further complementarity opportunities between utility-scale PV and natural gas”. These complimentary opportunities are related to one of solar power’s inherent drawbacks: intermittency. Because the productivity of solar power is limited to daylight hours, the peak supply times of solar power generation often do not coincide with peak demand. This issue would present a barrier to the widespread distribution of solar (and other renewables such as wind power) even if it were already more cost-effective than fossil fuels.
One of the key reasons why natural gas is complementing the distribution of solar power is that it can provide a solution to the problem of intermittency. As a fast-reacting fossil fuel, the quick ramp up time of natural gas generation means that it is particularly suitable to meet demand and mitigate the variability of solar power and other renewables. “The most important role for natural gas generation in a world of growing solar power is as the lowest-cost supplier of backup and fill-in energy”, says Eric Hittinger, a public policy researcher at the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York. “The significant deployments of natural gas turbines over the last 15 years really paved the way for today’s solar and wind generation, by ensuring that the variability could be handled by existing assets,” he added.
Not only does this allow solar power to be rolled out on a wider scale, it also makes using the technology cheaper, since co-located natural gas/solar generation saves on siting, permitting and transmission costs, says Hittinger. An example of the mutual compatibility between natural gas and solar power can be seen in the recent emergence of hybrid natural gas/solar power plants, a number of which have been constructed in the USA and Middle East. These include the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, currently the world’s largest solar thermal power station, which uses natural gas to initiate power generation each morning.
Hybrid technology is an area where Eni is getting in at the ground level. Last year, it signed an agreement with General Electric (GE) to develop renewable energy projects, including hybrid gas-renewable projects. GE seems like a smart choice, since the company already has experience building and operating a natural gas/solar hybrid power plant in Berlin, Germany. Partnerships like these between natural gas producers and companies with solar power expertise could prove to be an excellent way for the two industries to grow in tandem, offering a two-pronged approach to reducing CO2 emissions.
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