The unspoken role of natural gas in the U.S.’s clean energy future

Decades of coal and oil production have made climate change an issue for today, and the United States is ready to tackle it. In light of the country’s recently announced clean energy plan, we look at the past, present, and future role of natural gas in reducing the U.S.’s carbon emissions and providing efficient and reliable power generation.

In a timely announcement made on Earth Day 2021, the United States declared new targets to achieve a 50-52% reduction from 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse pollution by 2030, positioning American workers and the energy industry to tackle climate change.

Made during the Global Leaders’ Summit on Climate, the directive also claims to create millions of competitive union jobs, ensuring economic vitality, advancing environmental protection, and improving the health and security of communities across America.

The U.S.’s new targets signal an accelerated change and underscore the drive to net zero emissions by governments across the world. They also emphasize growing calls on public and private sectors to improve sustainability measures and reduce emissions over a shorter timeframe.

A history of change

Throughout the 20th century, coal dominated the U.S. energy mix. EIA figures reveal its consumption reached a peak in 2007, where it then began rapidly declining. A decade later, coal usage had dropped a staggering 36%, as the U.S. had moved towards oil and natural gas.

Referred to as the Shale Revolution, the sudden boom in natural gas production, thanks largely to economical extraction from shale-abundant areas such as the Permian Basin, transformed the U.S. energy industry. The country quickly became the world’s largest producer of natural gas and a key exporter to Mexico and Canada via pipeline. Advancements in the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry enabled the U.S. to start exporting further afield, particularly to South Korea and Japan. According to a McKinsey report titled The Future of Natural Gas in North America, the U.S. is expected to “head the list of the world’s top LNG exporting regions” by 2023.

Industry experts agree that the displacement of coal by natural gas in the energy mix has been a source of positive change for the country. The larger supplies and lower prices of natural gas have reduced the country’s reliance on imported petroleum, causing total fuel exports to outweigh imports and thus leading to a level of energy independence the U.S. has never seen before.

LNG exports are soaring.

There are significant environmental benefits too. According to the IEA, “natural gas is one of the mainstays of global energy. Where it replaces more polluting fuels, it improves air quality and limits emissions of carbon dioxide.”

Natural gas releases up to 60% less CO2 than coal, and since 2010, coal-to-gas switching has saved around 500 million tons of the greenhouse gas.

The processes used to extract difficult-to-reach shale resources have received some backlash, although hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) has significantly boosted the country’s gas production.

US will remain reliant on natural gas

The U.S. administration’s new clean energy vision depicts a renewables-driven sector powered by solar and wind farm investments. The plan is ambitious yet doesn’t address the role natural gas will play in a more sustainable future. Economical, stable, and reliable, gas became indispensable while renewables have yet to be effectively and economically scaled.

Renewables are inherently intermittent, with production halting when the sun stops shining and the wind stops blowing (beyond a few hours of battery storage). We can look to California, a leading state in renewable energy consumption, as one example. This reliance on renewables has been matched by a reduced dependence on natural gas. In 2018, an estimated 34% of the state’s electricity was generated from renewable sources. California experienced well reported blackouts last August.

And in a period of exceptional extremes in weather this has proved even more challenging for thousands of households left repeatedly without power when severe storms, unexpected freezing conditions or record-breaking heatwaves and wildfires strike. It is possible that wind turbines can in part explain the outcome from the unexpectedly severe winter freeze in Texas that knocked out power supplies across the state. Although nearly half of Texas’s wind-energy capacity, which accounts for 20% of the state’s electricity supply, was lost at the peak of the freeze, twice as much overall was lost from other sources.

Taken together, recent events from Texas to California, Oregon to Washington reveal a pattern of reliance on renewables and underline the need to keep a supply of natural gas available to stabilize the grid.

Renewables are slowly improving, and investments are increasing, but many experts believe that natural gas will bridge the road to renewables for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the rising penetration of renewable energy emphasizes the need for distributed power solutions to play a larger role in responsibly ensuring predictable and economical heat and power.

Projections indeed show sustained growth for natural gas. As the U.S. ramps up its clean energy efforts, the country will continue to be an integral part of natural gas markets and a significant source of global supply.

The EIA projects natural gas consumption to grow from 34 Tcf in 2020 to 43 Tcf in 2050.

Is natural gas a type of clean energy?

One of the major benefits of natural gas is that it’s a type of clean energy, offering environmental benefits over other fossil fuels like coal that include reduced CO2 emissions. In fact, CO2 emissions from natural gas are half of those resulting from coal.

The increased reliance on natural gas over the past few years has resulted in the lowest CO2 levels the power sector has seen in nearly three decades. The U.S. Energy Information Administration attributes this benefit to the use of natural gas for energy production. Use of natural gas over coal is credited for nearly two-thirds of reductions in CO2 emissions from years 2006 to 2014.

But, the environmental benefits do not end with CO2 emissions. As a source of energy, the use of natural gas will reduce other emissions including:

  • NOx
  • SO2
  • PM
  • Acid gasses
  • Hg
  • Non-Hg heavy metals

In addition to its environmental benefits, natural gas is helping the United States toward economic-related environmental and energy sustainability goals. According to the United States Department of Energy, “The clean energy industry generates hundreds of billions in economic activity, and is expected to continue to grow rapidly in the coming years. There are tremendous economic opportunities for countries that invent, manufacture and export clean energy technologies.”

Source: The National Gas Solution

The Future of Carbon-Neutral Fuels is Here

2022 has been a banner year for renewable natural gas (RNG). This carbon-neutral fuel can be used in existing infrastructure and with current appliances, making it an immediately useful fuel to help us reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable hydrogen is also hitting its stride, with billions being committed in investment for green hydrogen hubs and the first major projects beginning to produce at scale. Read on for a roundup of some of the most interesting recent developments.

ONE Gas, a regulated natural gas utility that operates in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas has been proactive in its search for sources of RNG and has 22 RNG projects in progress after identifying 175 billion cubic feet of potential renewable gas feedstock within their area of operations. ONE Gas is attempting to cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 55 percent below 2005 levels by 2035 and views a mix of renewable hydrogen blending and RNG as central to this pathway to a greener future. Their goal is to build pipelines that link sources of RNG with large-volume buyers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, laying the groundwork for further adoption of RNG.

RNG producer Opal Energy is engaged in a joint venture with GFL Renewables LLC to produce RNG from two landfills owned by GFL. This captured RNG, which would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere as methane, will instead provide the equivalent of more than 125 million gallons of gasoline annually by 2024. Opal hopes to expand their RNG fuel station operations from 95 stations at the end of 2021 to 256 by 2024. In Houston, a partnership between Archaea Energy and Republic Services is similarly working to reclaim methane from landfills and use it for a combination of electrical generation, home use, and vehicles.

Some utilities are allowing customers to opt-in to greater sustainability. Black Hills Energy, a combined natural gas and electric utility company operating across eight western states is pursuing a voluntary program, where customers can choose to buy blocks of RNG. A $5 block of RNG would be enough for 25 percent of the average customer’s monthly natural gas consumption. This program is a major part of how Black Hills Energy plans to reduce GHG emissions by 90 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Other companies, like Piedmont Natural Gas (a subsidiary of Duke Energy) are offering similar programs to their customers, with Piedmont selling carbon offsets equivalent to using RNG in $3 blocks.

RNG is poised to be a boon to dairy farmers. It’s no secret that cows produce methane gas. Rather than allowing this methane to leak into the atmosphere, it can be harvested and used as fuel. This provides a valuable revenue stream to farmers, an inexhaustible supply of carbon-neutral RNG to utilities and customers and helps to fight climate change by decreasing GHG emissions. Greenlane Renewables is one of the companies pursuing this “dairy cluster model” and is working with several local farmers in California to deploy harvest RNG.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently started an effort to decarbonize heavy industry with an initial investment of eight billion dollars in U.S. hydrogen hubs. This investment is part of the Biden Administration’s hydrogen Energy Earthshots Initiative, which seeks to reduce the cost of green hydrogen to $1 per kilogram. Even before this windfall, market leaders like Air Liquide were already in the process of scaling up renewable hydrogen operations. Air Liquide recently opened its largest liquid hydrogen production and logistics facility in Las Vegas, Nevada. This advanced facility is powered by renewable energy and uses carbon-neutral RNG to produce 30 tons of liquid hydrogen per day – enough to provide hydrogen to 40,000 hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Efforts to expand liquified natural gas (LNG) import capacity in Europe are aimed at a carbon-neutral future. Germany is building import terminals that will be capable of handling not only geologic and renewable natural gas, but also renewable hydrogen. One of the advantages of the gas distribution system is that existing infrastructure can be repurposed or upgraded to handle RNG and hydrogen in addition to geologic gas.

On the consumer products side of things, Walmart is looking to incorporate both natural gas and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles into its fleet as part of Walmart’s net-zero 2040 goal. While Walmart currently has a deal signed with Chevron to supply their trucks with compressed natural gas (CNG) from renewable sources, as the RNG economy matures, a broader distribution system to service natural gas and green hydrogen vehicles will be increasingly critical. The projects discussed above will help to decarbonize not only our homes and power generation but also our transportation systems.

RNG and green hydrogen will be key to achieving ambitious decarbonization goals. The wave of investment and innovation into these technologies is a very promising development for efforts to mitigate climate change and will serve as a valuable tool in America’s arsenal.

Source: American Gas Association