Many environmentalists are staunchly against the idea that natural gas can act as a bridge fuel to a renewable future. Actor Mark Ruffalo echoed the sentiments of many environmentalists when he wrote:
In order to promote natural gas consumption, the oil and gas industry convinced many governments (and environmental organizations) that it is a ‘bridge fuel.’ The idea was that natural gas could get the country off coal while renewable energy is developed. Since natural gas burns cleaner than coal at power plants, the case was made that it is better for the climate. But science has shown that far from being a bridge, natural gas and of the practice fracking represent a death knell for our climate.”
Since the turn of the century, a revolution has been underway in the power sector. Coal’s share of power production has declined sharply. It appears that renewables are the future. But what role should natural gas play in reaching that future? Let’s look at the data.
By the Numbers
According to data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), in the year 2000, 71 percent of U.S. electricity generation was derived from fossil fuels. By 2017 the fossil fuel share had fallen to 63 percent.
But the overall decline in fossil fuels is entirely because of a move away from coal for power generation.
Coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation between 2000 and 2017 fell from 51 percent to 30 percent. Renewables get a lot of credit for this decline, but the truth is that natural gas took most of coal’s market share. Over the past 17 years, the natural gas share of power production doubled from 16 percent to 32 percent. Natural gas is now the largest source of power in the U.S.
Renewables have grown as well. The total renewable share rose from 9.5 percent to 17 percent, but hydropower has always been responsible for the largest renewable contribution. In 2000 hydropower accounted for 275 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity. By 2017, that was just a bit higher at 300 billion kWh. But modern renewables like wind and solar power soared from nearly nothing in 2000 to 300 billion kWh in 2017.
Still, that is less than half the gains made by natural gas. Related: New Fuel Efficiency Rules Could Boost Oil Consumption
From 2000 to 2017, power generated by coal fell by 700 billion kWh. Meanwhile, at the same time natural gas generation increased by 700 billion kWh.
Falling Carbon Dioxide Emissions
The impact of the huge drop in coal can be clearly seen in the emissions data.
First, let me explain why coal has higher associated carbon dioxide emissions. Fossil fuels contain two different elements that produce energy: carbon and hydrogen. When carbon burns, it forms carbon dioxide. When hydrogen burns, it forms water vapor. Coal has a much higher concentration of carbon, whereas natural gas has much more hydrogen. Thus, when natural gas is burned, it produces relatively fewer carbon dioxide emissions.
According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, the U.S. has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 639 million metric tons per year since 2000. This leads all countries by far in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Far behind in second place was the U.K., where emissions dropped by 165 million metric tons per year.
At the same time China, by contrast, increased its carbon dioxide emissions by a whopping 6.8 billion metric tons per year, primarily a result of ~170 percent increases in both oil and coal consumption.
Thus, those who wish to debate whether natural gas should be a bridge between a coal-fired past and a renewable future are missing the point. It is already serving as that bridge.
In the next article, I will address how long that bridge might be, and how the U.S. model could serve as a model for the rest of the world.
By Robert Rapier
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From 2000 to 2013, coal consumption grew 1,509 Mtoe, while natural gas consumption grew 834 Mtoe. Clearly, natural gas production was nowhere close to matching the growing demand for coal. Neither was non-hydro renewables, which grew by 233 Mtoe in this 13 years. At best, gas merely slowed the advance of coal. We were not yet bridge to anything. It was just two fossil fuels duking it out for market share.
Coal finally peaked in 2013. From 2013 to 2017, coal consumption feel 138 Mtoe as gas grew 257 Mtoe and non-hydro renewables grew 204 Mtoe. Solar alone contributed 108 Mtoe. Without this acceleration of renewables, natural gas alone would have been insufficient to halt the rise of coal.
Finally, we are on the bridge. Coal is finally in decline on a global basis. Natural gas alone was unable to abate growth in coal. Only with the contributions from renewables are we now able to stem the tide of rising emissions. Going forward renewables are increasingly limited by the scope of the electricity markets. We need little gas to grow into that market. If natural gas really is to be helpful in a transition to zero emissions, growth in gas demand should focus on non-electrical markets. Specifically gas should displace coal and oil in the heat and transportation markets. Gas competing with wind and solar in the power markets is not really helpful anymore, and it only pays about $3/MMBtu anyway. Gas can earn a higher price and better help a clean energy transition in the heat and transport fuels markets.
So how can a major energy writer ignore methane while talking about natural gas as a bridge fuel? Our current federal administration likes to turn a blind eye to leaks around well casings, compressor stations, dated urban area distribution piping and out-right flaring and leaking of "waste/uneconomic" methane.
Find out what aircraft fitted with hydrocarbon sensors have documented about emissions above the Bakken and Texas fields. The EDC is one of the best sources of information on methane leaks, and what industry is, and is not, doing to correct the problem.
Let's see what Part 2 has to say; hopefully it's the rest of the story. Will the U.S. model for the world not only burn natural gas preferentially, but also greatly reduce methane flaring and leakage?
The day after this article was published, over 60 homes caught fire or exploded in Lawrence and Andover, Massachusetts related to an issue with a natural gas pipeline run by Columbia Gas. Your next article (unless it is to be written in a bubble insulated from current events) should acknowledge what is wrong with the U.S. model from a safety perspective. Natural gas carries specific safety risks that other energy sources do not.