US energy regulator says natgas has key energy role

12 May 2009 20:53  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--Access to US domestic natural gas supplies will be necessary to support the nation’s developing shift to renewable sources such as solar and wind power, the country’s top energy regulator said on Tuesday.

Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), also told a press conference that coal-fired and nuclear power plants will continue to have a role in generating US electricity supplies, but he said that the long-term participation of those two controversial power sources will be determined by the market place.

Wellinghoff, named to head the commission by President Barack Obama, was responding to broad criticism of remarks he made last week suggesting that by shifting US power generation to renewables, construction of additional coal and nuclear generating capacity might not be necessary.

Congressional Republicans and energy industry officials charged that Wellinghoff was being unrealistic and was exhibiting hostility to coal and nuclear power.

Asked about his view on the role of coal and nuclear generation of electricity, Wellinghoff said that in the quote that caused controversy “I was talking about scenarios in which at some point it might be feasible to use renewable resources to provide the base load power needs of the nation”.

Saying he did not rule out coal and nuclear generation, he said that “the market will decide the future role of coal and nuclear power”.

Wellinghoff has been a long-time advocate of renewable energy development, greater energy efficiencies and a so-called smart power grid that would enable consumers to better control and conserve their energy use.

The drive by the Obama administration and the Democrat-majority Congress to shift US energy development to renewable sources such as wind and solar is expected to trigger increasing demand for natural gas supplies. 

Natural gas is the preferred fuel for back-up generators that must be built alongside solar and wind farms to maintain power output when winds ease and clouds or nightfall impede solar power.

That additional demand on natural gas supplies is of concern to US chemicals producers who are heavily dependent on natgas as a feedstock and energy fuel. 

Some in the chemicals sector and other manufacturers have complained that the Obama administration appears hostile to development of conventional oil, natural gas and coal resources.

The US Energy Department and most other power analysts say that the US will need continued and even expanded use of coal and nuclear power for the next half-century at least, even as the nation moves toward renewable and alternative sources.

Asked if the nation could successfully transition to renewable energy sources without wide access to domestic US offshore and onshore natural gas resources, Wellinghoff said: “I am no expert on offshore gas, but I do know something about onshore gas, and we need to have access to our onshore supplies, and if we don’t [have that access], we should.”

The independent commission that Wellinghoff heads regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil. FERC also has review authority over proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminals and interstate natgas pipelines.

US chemical producers and a broad range of other manufacturers have been pressing Congress and the Obama administration to open US offshore areas to oil and gas development along with more production of onshore resources.

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By: Joe Kamalick
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