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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Natural Gas Will Rule The US Energy Market For Decades

Natural gas was first hailed as the bridge between the fossil fuel past and the renewable future. Then it came under fire because although cleaner than oil and coal, it is not entirely emission-free. But according to a new report from Energy Market Advisors, it will rule the energy mix of the United States even 20 years from now. 

The reasons for this continued dominance are simple enough even if they may be unpleasant for the most hard-line supporters of renewables such as solar and wind. Gas is not only cheap, but its supply is also continuous, so, importantly, it does not need battery storage the way solar and wind do, which increases the total costs of such installations even if other costs are falling, which they are.

These falling costs will undoubtedly pave the way to much more solar- and wind-heavy energy mix across North America, while coal sinks into oblivion, partly driven by its worse economics, the report said. By 2044, close to half of the existing coal power generation capacity will be gone. At the same time, solar will grow from 60 GW this year to some 250 GW in 2044 – an impressive fourfold growth. Wind will grow, too, albeit more modestly, from 115 GW today to 191 GW in 2044. But gas will rule them all.

To date, natural gas accounts for some 41 percent of North American energy generation. In 2044, according to Hitachi ABB Power Grids, gas will account for 43 percent. This, compared with the explosive growth seen in solar and wind, does not seem particularly impressive. The thing to remember is, however, that even with this almost absent growth, gas will be the fuel driving the biggest portion of power generation in North America. And this means that the fossil fuel era is far from over, really.

Related: The World's Most Expensive Crude Get Expensive Again

In some parts of the United States, it will even continue to be the dominant energy source even in 2044, according to the EMA report. In the Midwest, for instance, natural gas will account for 49 percent of energy generation in that year, while renewables will account for 31 percent. In the Southeast, gas will come to account for 57 percent, while renewables rise from less than 10 percent to 20 percent.

The forecast dominance of gas is not something that some governors such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo would want to hear as they strive for 100-percent renewable energy. But there is another reason gas will be dominant: it will help make the grid resilient to the intermittency of renewable energy generated by solar and wind farms. Because it is not intermittent like them, gas can provide the essential baseload every grid needs to provide a reliable power supply to its users. And if the supply is not reliable, the green energy boom could easily lose public support.

 “We need to pay attention to the integrity of the electrical grid. Because if we do not, we are going to lose this whole green thing we’re doing. We’re going to lose the public,” a Long Beach state Assemblyman, Patrick O’Donnell, told the California water board this summer when a heatwave revealed the state’s weak spots in energy supply.

“Cheap natural gas prices and the energy source’s ability to fill in where sustainable energy falls short will speed investment growth,” the EMA report authors wrote. “As an energy source, gas is regarded as a ‘stop-gap’ solution for renewables.”

It may even become something more than a stop-gap solution if the projected strong growth in renewable capacity additions does not pan out. The expiry of the production tax credit and the phase-out of the investment tax credit could drive a slowdown in new solar and wind capacity additions, Shilpa Kokate, Advisory Director for Easter U.S. for Hitachi ABB Power Grids, told Oilprice.

There is also the issue of a carbon tax that will greatly help the shift to renewables from fossil fuels as will overall regulatory support for this shift, which has been essential for the advent of renewables everywhere. But there is also another thing, according to Kokate—failure to appreciate the role of natural gas in helping maintain the reliability of power supply. 

Opposition to fossil fuels is understandable. It could become problematic, however, if it is so complete that it overlooks the role natural gas, if not other fossil fuels, plays in energy security. Renewable energy is clean, certainly, but as the sun does not shine around the clock, and the wind does not blow constantly and at a constant speed, they need storage to provide a reliable power supply. Building enough energy storage to eliminate the need for natural gas completely is a challenging task: battery installations take up a lot of space, and they don’t cost a dollar a kW. Until these challenges are overcome, gas will continue to be needed.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com 

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Leave a comment
  • Ronald Wagner on September 26 2020 said:
    Great article Irena. It is important to spend dollars wisely and not waste money in a crazy rush to all renewables. Natural gas for heating and clean large vehicles, among other uses, is very hard to beat.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on September 27 2020 said:
    Natural gas isn’t only the pivot for the global transition to renewables but is also the catalyst for the demise of coal as well. It is plentiful, cheap and practicable.

    The US shale revolution hasn’t only made the United States self-sufficient in gas but it also made it the world’s largest producer and also a major LNG exporter. Cheap gas will dominate electricity generation in the United States well into the future. It could also put an end to any possible future expansion of nuclear energy.

    While the notions of zero emissions and imminent global transition to renewables are illusions, both gas and renewable energy will continue to dominate global electricity generation with oil dominating the global transport system throughout the 21st century and far beyond.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Mark Potochnik on September 27 2020 said:
    Not even close. For 90% of applications it will be solar and storage. Continual falling solar/storage costs will win the day. Gas will not be able to compete. How low can gas go before bankruptcy?
  • Arch Region on September 27 2020 said:
    "But there is another reason gas will be dominant: it will help make the grid resilient to the intermittency of renewable energy generated by solar and wind farms."

    1) Except batteries, V2G, and smart Grid are less expensive than gas, which is just an another fossil fuel NOT a bridge between fossil fuels and clean renewables;

    2) While fossil gas is 87% cleaner during combustion compared to coal it is releases much more climate holocaust gases during extraction than does coal, and on balance it is a bad as coal.

    Sorry gas greatly reduced may survive during this decade but I do not see avoiding going up belly up at the latest during the following decade, having been replaced by hydrogen.
  • George Doolittle on September 27 2020 said:
    It is correct to argue natural gas is an "instant on" supply of fuel for generating electricity which indeed has single-handedly allowed for the rollout of the massive and hugely expensive "alt energy" systems such as wind and solar. Even nuclear power would be uneconomic in its current state if not for the Utica Marcellus shale bonanza.

    Having said that "little things" will be what leads to way forward to sustainable living: solar powered appliances that need no battery period. Water heaters that are far more passive. Sewage treatment that has far fewer inputs. Until then the US power grid will still overwhelmingly be run by coal and hydropower.
  • Peter Farley on September 30 2020 said:
    I think the idea that wind will less than double in 24 years is very pessimistic. The US wind pipeline today ias some 30 GW most of that can be expected to come on line over the next 2-3 years. Then there is the expected rapid growth of offshore wind so one would expect that wind will reach 350 GW almost double the quoted figure. Further with new offshore wind turbines reaching 60+% capacity factors and new onshore machines 40-55% the annual output per MW will rise 20-30% from current figures, so by 2044 wind will probably be supplying about 4 times as much energy as it does now or 1,300 TWh. That will replace all remaining coal and some gas, even assuming the US does little about energy efficiency.

    Then solar will catch up even faster. The US currently has about 200 Watts of solar power per person, Australia already has 500 Watts and Germany 800 Watts, both of these countries expect to increase that capacity over the next 10-15 years to about 2,000 Watts. That would mean that if the US followed suit, even 10 years behind, it would be getting 1,200 TWh per year from solar. Combined with hydro, biomass and geothermal it would mean combined renewable output of around 75% of US electricity supply, even if there is no new nuclear after plant Vogtle, nuclear will still be supplying at least 10% of power demand so gas will fall by more than half to about 15% from 36% with all coal closed and no new nuclear

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