A natural political, economic and technological ally for the burgeoning solar industry is natural gas, according to environmental activist/attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who made that pitch during a keynote address Wednesday to the Solar Power International 2009 conference in Anaheim, CA.

During a question-and-answer session following his talk that advocated a broad “democratization” of the grid, Kennedy was unsparing in his criticism of the coal and oil industries while exhorting the 22,000 solar industry conference attendees to embrace the natural gas industry.

An attorney with Riverkeepers and the Natural Resources Defense Council, among other organizations, Kennedy argued that the amount of coal-fired generation needing to be replaced to address global climate change cannot be met by solar and wind alone, so natural gas as the cleanest of the fossil fuels in the “balancing” fuel needed to help the world decarbonize. Half of the 1,000 GW of electricity used in the United States comes from carbon-based sources, he said, and over the next 50 years, assuming 2% annual growth in power demand, there will a need to replace a tremendous amount of carbon-based electricity.

“The natural gas industry is our ally, and that doesn’t mean gas should be allied with oil because for many years the smaller gas companies particularly have hidden under the wing of big oil and big coal,” said Kennedy, who in response to a separate question claimed to have four separate solar systems on his home in New York, which was designed by his green architect wife. “Until we solve the storage problem [for electricity], our storage solution is natural gas. If you build a solar thermal plant, you can run the turbine with sunlight during the day and run that same turbine with natural gas at night.”

Thus, Kennedy said he is an advocate for “detailed mapping” of the desert regions of California and the other Southwest states to find the prime areas that are environmentally safe with access to natural gas and electric transmission lines to develop massive solar thermal projects. He specifically parted company with Califiornia senior U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who wants to make vast areas of the desert lands off limits. “Right now Sen. Feinstein has a bill that is designed to take some of the best [solar thermal] lands off the table, but we shouldn’t let that happen,” he said.

Noting that technology recently has helped find vast new supplies of natural gas in North America and globally, Kennedy called natural gas “an important bridge fuel,” although he cautioned that today’s preponderance of fracing methods need to be tightly regulated so only the cleanest and more advanced technologies are used to obtain the added gas supplies. “Gas produces only about 40% of the carbon of coal or oil, with none of the mercury, none of the ozone particulates, and almost no SOX and NOX [sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide].”

He called fracing “very water demanding and dangerous,” noting that there are many technologies out there that could absolutely avoid those problems. They can both reduce water use and clean up what water is used, Kennedy said. “You ought to be insisting that regulators require these technologies.”

Sounding a theme that the solar industry must begin to exert its growing “political muscle” on Capitol Hill, where he thinks the coal industry is writing the proposed energy legislation, Kennedy told the solar representatives that the gas industry is their “natural political ally.”

“We need to drive a wedge between the gas industry and the rest of the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “We need this transition [to solar and gas bonding] because the solar industry cannot build 1.5 GW of power; even if we put solar photovoltaics on every southern-facing home in America, you would only cover about 10% of that number. So we can’t do it that way; we need utility-scale power, and if we do that, we need to balance the grid. When we start getting 25-50% of our power from renewables, we need to help the utilities figure out a way to balance that, and the way we have right now is through natural gas.”

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