Thanks to Natural Gas, US CO2 Emissions Lowest Since 1985

Thanks to Natural Gas, US CO2 Emissions Lowest Since 1985
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

At 80 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d), the U.S. just hit another record for dry natural gas production, a 46 percent increase since 2008 when the “shale gas revolution” started. The economic and energy security advantages are well known, but what has gotten less attention is how huge the environmental benefits of producing and using more natural gas have been.

In particular, mounting domestic supply has increasingly pushed us to more gas use in the electricity sector, which accounts for 35 percent of our total gas usage, especially noticeable the past week with air conditioners ramping up to fight the heat wave. U.S. gas needed for electricity has increased 40 percent over the past decade to ~26 Bcf/d — pushing gas to become our main source of power in 2016.

More gas for electricity has been our most effective weapon at combating climate change. Gas has negligible local pollutants and 50 percent less CO2 emissions than coal and 30 percent less than oil. Accounting for over 80 percent of our greenhouse gases, CO2 is the energy-emission most blamed for warming the planet. And reducing CO2 in power is essential: the sector accounts for almost 35 percent of our total emissions.

Gas power plants are mushrooming all over the country, with almost a 20 percent gas capacity gain of 90,000 megawatts from 2017–2020 alone. Bolstered by rising efficiency, the more that we have turned to natural gas, the more our CO2 emissions have plummeted. Our power emissions are now the lowest they have been since 1985. As the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has shown, electricity is unique in that it is the only sector where emissions are actually declining, thanks mostly to natural gas.

In fact, the U.S. has slashed CO2 emissions much faster than our European allies that adopted the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions in 1997. Preferring markets over incessant regulation, non-signatory U.S. has been reducing emissions faster than any other nation on Earth. All the while, our economy has boomed nearly 60 percent to $18 trillion (real 2010 $).

Indeed, the climate group Carbon Brief reports that more natural gas use is the primary driver for declining CO2 emissions in the U.S. power sector. Gas has cut 50 percent more emissions since 2005 than wind and solar power combined. Natural gas is the reason why President Obama’s now pulled back Clean Power Plan has become completely irrelevant: We are set to surpass his reduction goals a decade early. Natural gas is the only fossil fuel that actually increases in demand under modeled scenarios that keep the rise in the global average temperature to below the critical 2°C threshold.

Looking forward, we are going to need even more natural gas to meet climate goals. The Brookings Institution concludes that natural gas plants cut 2.6 times more greenhouse gas emissions than wind and 4 times more than solar. Brookings also reports that natural gas is easily the “least expensive” path to a low-carbon energy system.

In fact, not just lowering emissions directly by more use, a natural gas backbone for the power grid gives us the critical peaking ability to enable a deeper penetration of renewables. Gas plants have the unique ability to quickly ramp up and hit maximum output in a matter of minutes, compensating for “when the wind isn’t blowing” or “the sun isn’t shining.” With capacity factors in the 3343 percent range even on good days, naturally intermittent wind and solar are “unavailable more than they are available.” So as the required backup, natural gas that enjoys a much more reliable 85–90 percent range will remain crucial as the complement for renewables.

Although growing in importance, battery storage will simply not be able to displace gas peaking plants to fully support wind and solar: The scale of investment required is just too great. This explains precisely why EIA’s National Energy Modeling System projects that U.S. gas generation capacity will explode nearly 45 percent over the next 30 years — as nuclear and coal face drastic decline.

And why not? Our clean gas supply is effectively unlimited, with literally hundreds of years of gas at our disposal. We have 800 trillion cubic feet of low cost shale gas — far more than double our proven reserves — that can be produced even when gas is under $3 per MMBtu. EIA now projects that we will have a whopping 15–17 Bcf/d surplus (production – demand) by 2025, reaching 20–22 Bcf/d by 2040. This means that our gas prices will remain at record lows, encouraging even greater use in the decades ahead.

EIA forecasts that abundant and affordable natural gas will easily be the main source of new U.S. energy production, consistently soaring over 60 percent all the way through 2050. Thus, with its proven ability to drastically lower CO2, natural gas is much more than just a “bridge fuel” to a renewable future: Increasingly, gas is a destination fuel that will remain our go to source for clean electricity.

Jude Clemente is the Editor of RealClear Energy.

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