Increased use of natural gas to generate power in the U.S. is contributing to a decline in greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) out today.
While coal still makes up a substantial percentage of the nation’s electricity, particularly when power demands rise in the summer, the group predicts that natural gas will have an increasingly dominant role in the energy sector, resulting in lower emissions.
Coal still generates, on average, more of America’s electricity than natural gas. According to the report, natural gas accounted for 25 percent of power generation from November 2012 to March 2013. In comparison, coal generated an average 40 percent of the nation’s monthly electricity supply during the same period. (For a brief moment last spring, natural gas actually tied coal in power generation, but coal came back ahead afterwards.) And in the overall energy picture, including things like power generation, vehicle fuels, heating buildings and industrial use, natural gas made up 27 percent of total energy use in 2012.
While coal still dominates energy production, the report predicts natural gas will supply not only more of the nation’s future power, but also more of the nation’s general energy demands. Natural gas could eventually “overtake petroleum as the most popular primary energy source in the U.S.,” the report says.
Currently, petroleum accounts for 36 percent of primary U.S. energy consumption, most of which is supplied to transportation. (Petroleum supplies only about 1 percent of the nation’s electric power.)
The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions is a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy organization formerly known as the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, with a focus on protecting the global climate and ensuring energy affordability, according to the organization’s website. C2ES partners with and receives funding from energy companies like Shell, Entergy and Duke Energy.
While natural gas has yet to become the dominant energy source for American power generation, the report notes that the power industry’s increased substitution of natural gas for coal is the most notable cause of the nation’s reduced CO2 emissions, which were nearly 9 percent lower in 2011 than they were in 2007.
Natural gas is considered cleaner than coal because it releases about half as much carbon dioxide when it is burned in power plants, and fewer pollutants per unit of energy. As unconventional drilling techniques like hydraulic fracturing have unlocked new domestic reserves of natural gas in Texas and other parts of the country, natural gas has become abundant and much cheaper than in the past. Facilities built just a few years ago to import natural gas into the country are now being retrofitted in order to export it.
However, the report cautions that the transition to natural gas will not, alone, prevent the most serious effects of climate change. Natural gas is primarily composed of methane, which has a heat-trapping ability that is about 21 times more powerful than CO2 over a 100-year period. Direct releases of methane in the atmosphere, which can occur during the drilling process, “have the potential to be a significant climate issue,” and must consequently be managed, according to the report.
The report says that zero-emission energy sources, such as wind and solar power, will also be necessary to sufficiently reduce atmospheric pollution—but economic models indicate that policy intervention will be required to help develop renewable technology.
Since many renewable energy sources are intermittently available and in the early stages of development, the report predicts that natural gas will continue to be needed as a reliable, long-term backup source of energy.