The Future of Natural Gas

Photo: Simon Fraser University/CC BY (Flickr)
Oil and gas fracking wells.

While simply replacing coal with natural gas in the electricity sector would not be an effective long-term climate strategy, natural gas does offer some important advantages in the near- to medium-term.

Low natural gas prices and recent increases in the cost of generating electricity from coal have resulted in a significant shift from coal to natural gas over the past few years. With sufficient regulatory oversight, burning natural gas instead of coal could help reduce air pollution, providing immediate public health and environmental benefits.  And because natural gas generators can be ramped up and down quickly, they could support the integration of wind and solar, provide increased flexibility to the electricity system, and continue to be used to meet peak demand.

Natural gas can also play an important role in meeting peak electricity demand and fueling cogeneration plants that generate both heat and power—which are up to twice as efficient as plants that only generate electricity highly efficient technologies that provide both heat and power in the commercial and industrial sectors. 

However, natural gas is by no means a panacea for the environmental problems caused by our energy use. There is broad agreement among climate scientists that carbon reductions of at least 80 percent by 2050 will be needed to avert the worst effects of climate change. Simply switching to natural gas from coal and oil will not ultimately bring about the necessary reductions. In addition, the development of our newly discovered shale gas resource will disturb areas previously untouched by oil and gas exploration and raise serious water management and quality challenges.

In addition, continued increases in natural gas demand for electricity and other uses could result in shortages and significant price increases in the future, similar to what the United States experienced in the early 2000s (after the last major natural gas power plant construction boom). And with no long-term national policy support, cheap natural gas could crowd renewable energy out of the power market in the near-term [1]. By diversifying the electricity mix, renewables and efficiency can provide an important hedge against future natural gas price increases [2].

Thus, while natural gas has a role to play in our future electric mix, a natural gas-centered energy pathway would also carry significant economic, environmental, and public health risks. Instead, a diversified electricity system—with amplified roles for renewable energy and energy efficiency and a modest role for natural gas—would both limit the threat of climate change and mitigate the risks of an overdependence on natural gas.

References:

[1] National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). 2012. Renewable electricity futures study. NREL/TP-6A20-52409. Golden, CO.

[2] Bolinger, M. 2013. Revisiting the long-term hedge value of wind power in an era of low natural gas prices. LBNL-6103E. Berkeley, CA: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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