Clean, abundant and affordable.
Over the last several decades, natural gas has been growing in popularity as a clean energy fuel thanks to its domestic abundance, its affordable price and its lack of harmful emissions compared to other fossil fuels.
The following information is designed to help the reader understand why this is so, and why natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels.
What is natural gas? Why is it cleaner than other fossil fuels?
Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and like all such fuels it is formed from the detritus of long-dead plants and animals. Over the course of thousands of years, layer upon layer of plant and animal matter is compressed and formed into natural gas, or coal or oil, by the Earth’s intense heat and pressure. The energy these plants and animals absorbed from the sun eons ago is stored as carbon, which becomes the actual fuel source. After drilling to extract the fuel, burning that carbon creates heat, which can be used to generate electricity.
Because of their combustion properties, natural gas, oil and coal are excellent sources of fuel. The downside of burning fossil fuels, of course, is the harmful emissions that are released. Fossil fuels emit nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxides and sulfur oxides when burned. In great and concentrated amounts, it’s been found that these emissions are harmful to the environment.
Natural gas, however, is the cleanest of these fossil fuels by far. When natural gas is burned in a power plant, it does produce nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide emissions, but at levels far less than those emitted by burning coal and oil.
According to data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, average air emissions from natural gas-fired power plants produce half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and one percent as much sulfur oxides than average air emissions from coal-fired power plants. Additionally, the use of natural gas as a source fuel for electricity does not produce the substantial amounts of solid waste that coal produces.
New technology being implemented in power plants also gives natural gas an added boost.
Traditionally, natural gas-fired power plants either burn natural gas in a boiler to produce steam, which is then used by a steam turbine to generate electricity, or plants burn the gas in a combustion turbine to generate electricity. Newer plants, however, incorporate “combined cycle” technology that both increases efficiency and decreases emissions. Combined cycle combines the burning of natural gas in a combustion turbine, with steam generation by using the turbine’s waste exhaust to drive a steam turbine.
Natural gas is not just a clean choice for electric plants. It is increasingly being adopted as an automotive fuel as well, again because it is a cleaner burning fuel. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, fuel costs for natural gas vehicles (NGVs) are 30 percent less than those using gasoline and 42 percent less than those burning diesel. Natural gas also contains less carbon than any other fossil fuel, refined or not, so less carbon dioxide – one of the most detrimental greenhouse gases – is emitted per vehicle. Experts say that as much as a 30 percent emissions reduction can be achieved with current NGV technology.
The mass transit industry has been one of the early adopters of natural gas as a fuel. For example, 26 of all new transit bus orders in 2009 were for NGVs, according to the American Public Transit Association. Meanwhile, nearly 18 percent of all buses in service last year were NGVs as well.
Abundance and cost effectiveness necessary
An energy reality is that, no matter how clean a fuel source may be, it cannot be viable unless there is an abundant supply and it’s cost effective. Luckily for the United States, natural gas meets that requirement.
On the supply side, geological research is yielding increasing amounts of natural gas reserves in North America. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there was an estimated 308,462 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proven North American reserves in 2008. A year later, the estimate increased
to 308,794 trillion cubic feet.
That supply has translated favorably into low prices. While the price of natural gas on the open market can fluctuate significantly from day-to-day and month-to-month, the overall price of natural gas in recent years has made it a clear winner as a fuel source compared to coal and oil.
North America has an abundant supply of natural gas with more being discovered every year. Thanks to this supply, the cost of natural gas compares very favorably to other fuels. Best of all, natural gas is aclean burning fuel that when used efficiently can reduce emissions. Overall, that makes natural gas the best choice for our energy future.