Natural gas leads clean electricity production

Natural gas leads clean electricity production
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There is a clear message in the ascendance of natural gas. Electric utilities note that power generated from natural gas is inexpensive, reliable and clean. By the way, natural gas supplies are almost unlimited.

And there is an added dividend: Due to the shift largely from coal to natural gas, carbon emissions from electricity production in the United States have dropped dramatically and are now at mid-1980’s levels.

The people who build and operate natural gas plants have shown they mean business, as reflected in the remarkable surge in U.S. electricity production to more than 440 gigawatts of natural gas capacity. 

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Consider that over the past 10 years, natural gas has emerged as a pillar of U.S. economic strength. Jobs are being created and manufacturing is flourishing, thanks in large part to lower energy costs. The shale gas revolution has made natural gas so cheap that it is displacing coal as a fuel for generating electricity.

For utilities that use growing amounts of gas, this has meant lower costs for consumers. Electricity production from coal has dropped from nearly 50 percent of the total seven years ago to under 20 percent today, while electricity from gas has risen from about 20 percent seven years ago to 35 percent now, according to the Energy Information Administration.

An abundance of inexpensive American gas is transforming global energy markets, providing important geopolitical gains from the export of liquefied natural gas. In the battle to weaken Russia’s economic grip on Europe, we’ve turned to the commercial world’s most basic weapons — competition. Increasing the export of LNG has given Europe an alternative source of natural gas.

What really brings home the new reality is a milestone reached last year, when America eclipsed Russia as the world’s top producer of natural gas. This adds up to a very different outlook than the one 15 years ago when the U.S. was heavily dependent on imported natural gas.

All of this was made possible by the development of innovative technologies like advances in hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling that ushered in the shale revolution. In fact, greater natural gas use has become the main driver for declining carbon emissions in the U.S. power sector.

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And because gas plants can ramp up quickly, they are able to compensate for a lack of wind and solar energy on days when production from renewables can’t meet demand. Since 2005, gas cut 50 percent more emissions than wind and solar combined. 

Whether the United States will continue to take advantage of the opportunities introduced by increased natural gas will depend in large part on reducing bottlenecks in the pipeline system. The worst are in New England, where a lack of pipeline capacity has meant that, instead of being able to access gas from the nearby Marcellus shale, New England utilities had no choice but to pay inflated prices for Russian LNG that was produced halfway around the world.

Just how critical is natural gas? Combined-cycle natural gas plants not only are America’s leading source of electricity, but have become the nation’s engine of economic growth, strengthening jobs creation and industrial expansion. The ramp up in electricity production from gas has reduced air pollution and carbon emissions.

There is, in short, an overwhelming policy case for dropping what has proved to be one of the environmental movement’s greatest follies — the belief that only renewables can meet our nation’s environmental and economic needs by providing emission-free energy.

Also, despite generous government subsidies and mandates, solar and wind combined supply only 8 percent of the nation’s electricity. The good news is that the switch from coal to natural gas has led to a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions. 

Ironically, the environmental gains from natural gas, once regarded as a bridge to renewables, may be just the thing that enables solar and wind to retain a place in the energy economy of the decades to come.

J. Winston Porter, Ph.D., is a former EPA assistant administrator with national responsibility for Superfund and other waste programs. Currently, he is a national environmental and energy consultant, based in Atlanta.