Actions to Reduce Emissions Continue to be Led by Natural Gas
Posted June 14, 2021
Among U.S. efforts to address the risks of climate change, the dramatic shift to natural gas to fuel electricity generation stands out over everything else.
That includes renewables, electric vehicles and the seemingly endless target-setting by various bodies. In terms of measurable progress, none of those has reduced greenhouse gas emissions in this country as much as increased use of natural gas for power generation.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that over the past 15 years, the shift in power generation fuel to natural gas from coal is largely responsible for 2019 sector carbon dioxide emissions that were 32% lower than those of 2005. It’s a generation shift that’s truly generational – CO2 emissions from the power sector falling to their lowest levels in a generation. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), no other country has reduced CO2 emissions more than the U.S. since 2000.
We make a big deal about it because actions and results are more important than words, intentions and commitments. And while renewables and emerging technologies are playing an important role that no doubt will increase – with the support of the natural gas and oil industry – natural gas is leading the way in decreasing emissions today.
EIA reports more than 100 coal-fired power plants have been replaced or converted to natural gas since 2011. Coal made up 50% of U.S. electricity generation in 2005, declining to 23% in 2019, EIA says. At the same time, natural gas increased from 19% of total generation in 2005 to 38% in 2019.
Coal produces more CO2 per unit of energy than natural gas does when burned. Coal consumption for electricity generation produces 209 pounds of CO2 per million British thermal units (MMBtu), compared with 117 pounds of CO2/MMBtu for natural gas. Natural gas-fired generators, especially those that operate in a combined-cycle configuration, are also more efficient than coal-fired generators. On average, natural gas-fired generators produce electricity with significantly less energy input than coal, also helping to lower CO2 emissions. A lower heat rate indicates a more efficient plant. In 2019, the conversion efficiency for natural gas-fired generation was 7,731 British thermal units per kilowatthour (Btu/kWh) and 10,551 Btu/kWh for coal-fired generation.
EIA expects coal will reclaim market share this year because of higher costs for natural gas. This would reverse some of the emission reductions from previous years and suggests energy policy should foster increased domestic natural gas production so it can remain a cost-effective tool to combat climate change. In the coming years, the agency forecasts that renewables will also increase their share of the generation mix.
Again, in the here and now, it’s important that natural gas continue to replace coal in power generation because of its effectiveness in reducing CO2 emissions on a large scale. In fact, switching to natural gas from coal in power generation has accounted for more than twice as much emissions reduction as renewables.
Of the 819 million metric ton decline in CO2 emissions from 2005 to 2019, EIA says fuel-switching to natural gas is responsible for 65% of the decline – nearly 532 million metric tons. About 248 million metric tons of the decline (30%) is attributable to increased use of renewables. Dustin Meyer, API vice president of Natural Gas Markets:
“The United States continues to reap the benefits of increased gas usage in the power sector – major emission reductions, lower prices for consumers, and a more flexible grid that perfectly complements rising renewable energy generation. This timely analysis confirms that in order to continue making progress in the fight against climate change, the U.S. must maintain its status as a top producer of reliable, affordable natural gas.”
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.
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