Editor’s Notebook: CNG With A View

December 2013, Vol. 240 No. 12

GRAND CANYON – It’s just a couple days after the INGAA Foundation meeting in Scottsdale and Janet and I are extending our Arizona excursion with a few days in Grand Canyon sandwiched between stops in Sedona. The conference has filled my head with happy thoughts of natural gas, the environmentally friendly fuel now rewriting the history of energy in this country.

There can’t be any place more scenic than this breathtaking 8,000-high vista which stretches for hundreds of miles and is justifiably called one of the great wonders of the world. The sky is shaded a deep blue unlike anything we see in Houston. The air is so clean that when you take a deep breath you’re reluctant to let it all out, something else that doesn’t happen in Houston. And it is kept spotless because the millions who visit appreciate nature and the environment.

Soon I discover a key reason for the national park’s beauty: their free shuttle bus system runs on compressed natural gas (CNG). These are obviously much cleaner and cheaper to run than the aging diesel-fueled buses of the past, while at the same time reducing parking congestion on South Rim.

I did a little homework. Grand Canyon began the shuttle service in 1974 and in 1998 switched to CNG to power its buses and other heavy equipment. By 2008 the entire bus fleet ran on CNG. In 2010, the National Park Service used $3 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to add six buses to its fleet of 29.

A spokesperson for Grand Canyon told me that the CNG fleet has been “hugely successful” and the numbers speak for themselves. The buses last year handled 6.2 million boardings, compared to 4.5 million in 2010.

Let’s look at some numbers: the General Service Administration has estimated that the bus replacement will result in the following annual reduction of tailpipe emission pollutants within the park:
• 18.5 tons/year of non-methane hydrocarbons
• 176 tons/year of nitrous oxides, and
• 10 tons/year of diesel particulate matter (or soot).

As we walked along the South Rim in between the convenient shuttle stops, the winds picked up, nearly blowing us asunder when we neared the edge of the overlook. Now if I was an “environmentalist” in today’s ideological world, wouldn’t I think this to be a perfect location for a wind farm with their bird-killing blades that rise hundreds of feet into the air?
Folks at the Grand Canyon don’t think this is a very good idea. In fact, they don’t like how a wind farm about 30 miles away detracts from the area’s wondrous beauty.

So I did some more homework and learned that wind power isn’t doing all that well these days. An article published by Climate Central on March 12, 2013 entitled “Forecast Dims for Future Growth in Wind Power,” by Alyson Kenward noted that despite the industry reporting a record year in 2012 for wind power, the numbers aren’t really that good and offer strong indications that it will not keep up with the usage of natural gas.

She quotes data from the federal Energy Information Administration noting wind power provided enough electricity to power more than 12 million homes in 2012, which was up 17% from 2011. But overall, wind power contributed only about 3.5% of all the electricity generated in the U.S. in 2012, up from 2.9% in 2011. In comparison, natural gas produced 10 times more new electricity than wind power. In 2012, nearly a third of electricity came from natural gas, a 21% increase from 2011.

Kenward suggested 2012’s record growth in wind energy capacity might not be repeated anytime soon as developers rushed to build their farms before tax credits were to run out at the end of the year. Though the credits were renewed for another year, there aren’t many new projects underway, she wrote.

A report by the Department of Energy says the “absolute best-case scenario” for 2013 is that the wind industry sees level growth. “More realistically, new wind power installation will be just a fraction of what was built in 2012.”

The moral of the story? Natural gas wins again.

The Houston Press Club awarded Editor’s Notebook first place for magazine columns at its recent annual Lone Star Awards banquet. The winning column was published in October 2012 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the deadly New London, TX school explosion which led to permanent changes in the natural gas industry. This marked P&GJ’s eighth Lone Star Award.

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