Natural Gas Is Integral in Path to Sustainable Future
Posted October 19, 2020
There’s an interesting subplot the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) recent report on the technology push that’s needed to reach sustainability targets: the empowering, essential role of natural gas.
It bears repeating: Abundant, affordable natural gas is critical to the growth of renewable energy, supplying reliable fuel for power generation when intermittent sources aren’t available. Natural gas and petroleum are used in the manufacturing of renewable technologies and in the development of potential game-changers such as hydrogen.
Even if the United States alone were to meet the aggressive sustainability goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, natural gas and oil would still make up 46% of the energy mix in 2040. Indeed, IEA expects natural gas demand to rebound by almost 3% in the next year, and oil demand should similarly recover within coming years. In another report, IEA indicates that those who herald oil’s demise are doing so prematurely.
Meanwhile, natural gas provides reliable and affordable energy that we will depend on for the foreseeable future. In fact, natural gas will be essential in helping the world reach its sustainability goals.
IEA’s technology/sustainability report calls for rapid innovation to meet targets, yet it’s clear that a number of promising technologies need to be rapidly developed before they can start to bring the world closer to a net-zero emissions reality. These technologies include advanced batteries; hydrogen and hydrogen-related fuels. Specifically, IEA notes that “technically viable alternative fuel technologies are not yet very advanced and are also likely to initially cost more than oil-based fuels.” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol:
“Despite the difficulties caused by the Covid-19 crisis, several recent developments give us grounds for increasing optimism about the world’s ability to accelerate clean energy transitions and reach its energy and climate goals. Still, major issues remain. …
“Solar is leading renewables to new heights in markets across the globe, ultralow interest rates can help finance a growing number of clean energy projects, more governments and companies are throwing their weight behind these critical technologies, and all-important energy innovation may be about to take off. However, we need even more countries and businesses to get on board, we need to redouble efforts to bring energy access to all those who currently lack it, and we need to tackle emissions from the vast amounts of existing energy infrastructure in use worldwide that threaten to put our shared goals out of reach.”
Another technology – carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) – is based on well-understood technology and engineering and holds great promise in addressing CO2 emissions, but it will require additional policy support for widespread deployment.
The energy poverty Birol referred to, as well as the need to reduce emissions from existing infrastructure, suggest natural gas and liquified petroleum gas (LPG). Furnishing these to other parts of the world can replace other fuels used for lighting, heating and cooking – lowering emissions and helping improve health.
As for the technologies IEA is believes will help the world reach net-zero emissions this century, faster progress will be needed in end-use sectors, which IEA says accounted for 55% of energy and industry-related CO2 emissions in 2019.
Natural gas can help fill the gap. It already is. In the chart below, the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that fuel switching from coal to natural gas (blue bars) accounted for about 61% of reduced carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector since 2005:
Natural gas is needed more than ever – and technologies such as CCUS and hydrogen underscore this. IEA projects those two will “play leading roles, with an average of about 75 plants incorporating CCUS and 20 plants incorporating low-carbon hydrogen being added each year from 2030.”
Natural gas companies’ efforts to improve carbon-efficiency will help achieve short- and medium-term targets for sustainability, as research from the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative points out. As the world’s energy demand keeps growing in the future, carbon-efficient natural gas technologies will prove essential to our economy and society.
Even progressive climate plans include natural gas as important to further sustainable technologies while serving as a major energy source of energy for this century. During a podcast with the Columbia Energy Exchange, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Ernest Moniz, president and CEO of the Energy Futures Initiative, described natural gas as key to more futuristic sustainable technologies, such as hydrogen and the role of natural gas in expanding solar and wind technologies.
During Trumka and Moniz’s conversation with the Columbia Energy Exchange Podcast host Bill Loveless, Moniz argued that he had “not seen a credible modeling of getting to deep decarbonization without having a continuing role for natural gas for some time.” More from Moniz:
“I think gas will also be a bridge to – I’ll stick my neck out and say hydrogen. I think that hydrogen can ultimately be a bridge for many of the functions of natural gas in the economy, but how do we get to hydrogen? … [T]he direction of methane steam reforming and carbon capture and sequestration would actually be the less expensive approach. I think we need to start building out the hydrogen approach right now through policy and incentives.”
Affordability is critically important to grow a technology. There’s “green hydrogen,” made from renewable energy sources, but it is 200% to 800% more expensive than hydrogen currently made from natural gas according to a recent U.S. Senate Climate report. Natural gas hydrogen with CCUS would provide a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, while still being a cost-friendly solution if natural gas remains affordable, according to the IEA.
Meanwhile, because most climate plans involve a thriving natural gas and oil industry, it is important to touch on the importance of industry jobs to U.S. union members. A recent study conducted by the North American Building Trades Unions concluded that “Tradespeople report better project variety, skill development, and project consistency in the oil and natural gas industries compared to the work being done in the wind and solar industries.”
Even with various factors such as low interest rates helping to finance clean energy projects, the promising trajectory of solar energy development, and increased investment from government and businesses into clean energy, there are still critical issues for the world to overcome. Natural gas will play a big role in that.
- API’s Gwen Fuller contributed to this post.
About The Author
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Previously, Mark was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor at an assortment of newspapers. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela have two grown children and six grandchildren.