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Published: Wednesday, 9/19/2012

Stopgap or solution?

Plans to build a natural-gas power plant in Oregon reflect the need to move this region, state, and nation away from relying too much on coal-fired power. But there is an equal potential danger in seeking to make natural gas a centerpiece of the country's long-term strategy to generate electricity.

Expanded use of natural gas, if it is done right, will buy time for Ohio and other states that are overly dependent on coal, as wind and solar power and other renewable energy sources gain a stronger foothold. It can promote the application of cleaner-coal technologies. But excessive reliance on gas could derail markets for renewables and hurt northwest Ohio's efforts to create clean-energy jobs.

Natural gas is plentiful now. Previously inaccessible shale deposits are getting unlocked by advances in hydraulic fracturing of bedrock, combined with horizontal-drilling techniques. But natural gas, like all other fossil fuels, is finite.

Power plants fired by natural gas emit far less pollution than coal-fired plants. But even with those reductions, other pollution risks remain in areas that are drilled, and in states such as Ohio that inject waste fluids underground.

The natural gas facility proposed in Oregon could become one of northwest Ohio's largest power producers. It would more than replace the power lost when FirstEnergy Corp. closed three coal-fired units at its Bay Shore plant this month. With two gas turbines and a steam turbine, the new plant would resemble the Fremont Energy Center in Sandusky County, which American Municipal Power began operating this year.

The abundance and expanded use of natural gas raise the bar for the state regulation of fracking established by Gov. John Kasich's administration. Methane leakage from gas wellheads and pipelines must be prevented, to preserve the gains made in controlling greenhouse gases from burning less coal.

Coal-fired power will produce less than 40 percent of the nation's electricity this year, the lowest rate since at least 1949. Coal produced half of the nation's power just four years ago.

By the end of this decade, coal is expected to retain only 30 percent of the market. By contrast, natural gas now produces 29 percent of America's electricity, up from 20 percent in 2008.

Natural gas can help promote the transition away from coal. But the nation still needs more renewable energy.



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