Natural gas is just what clean energy needs

January 23, 2013, 2:35 PM UTC

By Arno Harris, contributor

FORTUNE — America is awash in natural gas. Prices are low and by some estimates we have a 100-year supply of it. Today we produce more than we use so why not export it? By doing so, natural gas could act as the driver of a comprehensive U.S. energy plan that would make sense in terms of our economy, national security and public health. Better yet, it could rally support from interest groups previously at odds. How? Embracing natural gas exports would not only take the slack out of the U.S. natural gas market, which would help producers, but also would enable renewable energy to replace natural gas as the backbone of America’s power-generation infrastructure. In other words, there is a clear alignment between renewable energy supporters and the oil and gas industry based on a shared interest in seeing natural gas prices rise a notch or two..

If gas prices were still at the levels they were three years ago, wind and solar would be solidly competitive with fossil-fired power, and the utility-scale renewable industry wouldn’t be fighting the headwinds it is today. But wouldn’t natural gas exports just increase the amount of carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere? One of the big downsides of our gas glut in the U.S. is that we’re now exporting our coal to Europe. Cheap domestic gas is replacing coal at home but that coal is simply being burned elsewhere. Thus the result of low gas prices is to increase global carbon emissions because total fossil fuel consumption is exploding.

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Exporting natural gas would be more likely to displace coal both at home and abroad, resulting in a lower net carbon emissions overall. This alone gives climate advocates a reason to support the export of natural gas. Beyond that, any economist will tell you that raising the price of a commodity should increase rationing of that product. In other words, raising the price of gas in the U.S. should result in burning less of it and lead to more selective consumption.

A gas export initiative is clearly the best policy for dealing with the current gas glut and provides the least offensive role for government to play in restoring balance to power markets. The Department of Energy already has approved one export terminal, the Sabine Pass Liquefaction LLC in Louisiana, so progress is underway. A natural gas export initiative has significant potential to garner broad political support by aligning the interest of historical adversaries on energy issues. This latter point is exciting. It suggests a potential political opening for the kind of comprehensive energy plan our nation needs to move forward.

Arno Harris is the CEO of Recurrent Energy, a leading solar project developer.