“Natural Gas Is King of America’s Power Mix, for Now,” proclaimed Bloomberg News in mid-2017. That’s the way it has played out in the U.S. electric industry. Natural gas generation provides a lot of electricity to consumers.

There’s a story behind the shift to gas, evident by a news item this week in the Carolinas: “Duke Energy Carolinas … has opened a 750 MW combined-cycle natural gas plant at the W.S. Lee Station in Anderson County, SC. Duke closed two coal-fired units at the same location in 2014 and converted a third coal unit to natural gas in 2015.” Last month a power generation company, NTE Energy, announced the development and permitting of the Anderson County Energy Center, also a gas plant, expected to start operation in 2024. NTE’s other Carolina assets are the Kings Mountain Energy Center and its Reidsville Energy Center (both NC), operational in 2021.

In the U.S., coal generation plants have been retired and natural gas plants have oftentimes replaced them to fill our electric needs. Some keys to the shift:

  • Gas has a lower carbon footprint than coal generation
  • Gas has been plentiful
  • Gas has been reasonably priced in recent years

The gas trend is expected to continue. “Gas-fired power generation capacity globally will still increase 16 percent by 2040 from last year [2016 in this case], representing $804 billion in investments,” said Bloomberg News Energy Finance in 2017. Power plant operators are scheduled to bring 20 gigawatts (GW) of new natural-gas fired generating capacity online this year. The Energy Information Agency says, “About 13 GW of coal-fired capacity are scheduled to be retired in 2018. These changes in the generating capacity mix contribute to the continuing switch from coal to natural gas, especially in southern and Midwestern states.” For reference, one GW can power 700,000 homes per year. Twenty GW could equal 14 million homes. As a reference, in 2017 there were roughly 136 million households in the US. (Use these only as a broad guidelines.)

The U.S. has immense natural gas reserves, enough to last roughly 90 years, depending on how much we use and what other reserves the nation may find. Ample supply and low cost is, in part, from “fracking” – shorthand for fracturing of rock to allow gas to migrate and be brought to the surface. That boosts the overall supply. There is the need to get the gas to the place where it is needed through pipelines, too. Pipelines and fracking have their supporters and detractors as has been reported in many news forums.

Natural gas has on the order of 60 percent less carbon than coal generation, depending on the kind of coal and the plant process used. “Coal-to-gas switching is the largest driver of electricity sector CO2 emission reductions, accounting for 45% of the total in 2016. Wind and reduced electricity use each account for around 25%, while solar contributed the remaining 5%,” says Carbon Brief, a source that reports on climate news. That is a step in a positive direction as the nation addresses carbon issues when gas replaces a higher carbon fuel. Another benefit often noted, natural gas plants have a relatively quick start-up time and are available day or night.

Gas and power generation have been dynamic over the last couple years. Some people call it a “dash-to-gas” in power generation. Energy expert Daniel Yergin said, “The United States is in the midst of the ‘unconventional revolution in oil and gas’ that, it becomes increasingly apparent, goes beyond energy itself.  It is helping to stimulate a manufacturing renaissance in the United States, improving the competitive position of the United States in the global economy.” He said in testimony to Congress, reported in National Geographic.

As Energy Consumers of the Carolinas has noted in other posts, energy facts ought to be widely communicated; solid debate is essential for good decision-making. So it is with the case of natural gas. There are reasons natural gas is being used so much. Natural gas may or may not be the fuel that is permanent, or as permanent as any energy is in the long term, or a bridge to something else. It is a fuel that has been a strategic success so far.

 

FURTHER READING ABOUT NATURAL GAS. It is not all used to make electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Agency explains the uses:

  • The electric power sector uses natural gas to generate electricity. In 2016, the electric power sector accounted for about 36% of U.S. natural gas consumption, and natural gas was the source of about 27% of the U.S. electric power sector’s energy consumption.
  • The industrial sector uses natural gas as a fuel for process heating and for combined heat and power systems and as a raw material (feedstock) to produce chemicals, fertilizer, and hydrogen. In 2016, the industrial sector accounted for about 34% of U.S. natural gas consumption, and natural gas was the source of about 31% of the U.S. industrial sector’s energy consumption.
  • The residential sector uses natural gas to heat buildings and water, to cook, and to dry clothes. About half of the homes in the United States use natural gas for these purposes. In 2016, the residential sector accounted for about 16% of U.S. natural gas consumption, and natural gas was the source of about 22% of the U.S. residential sector’s energy consumption.
  • The commercial sector uses natural gas to heat buildings and water, to operate refrigeration and cooling equipment, to cook, to dry clothes, and to provide outdoor lighting. Some consumers in the commercial sector also use natural gas as a fuel in combined heat and power systems. In 2016, the commercial sector accounted for about 11% of U.S. natural gas consumption, and natural gas was the source of about 18% of the U.S. commercial sector’s energy consumption.
  • The transportation sector uses natural gas as a fuel to operate compressors that move natural gas through pipelines. A relatively small amount of natural gas is used as vehicle fuel in the form of compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas. Nearly all vehicles that use natural gas as a fuel are in government and private vehicle fleets. In 2016, the transportation sector accounted for about 3% of total U.S. natural gas consumption. Natural gas was the source of about 3% of the U.S. transportation sector’s energy consumption in 2016, of which 97% was for natural gas pipeline and distribution operations.