The Reality of Cutting U.S. Carbon Emissions: Natural Gas

Despite all of the innovations and investments in solar, wind, energy efficiency, and the smart grid, the reality of cutting carbon emissions out of the U.S. energy portfolio will rely on natural gas. A report released out of MIT today and reported by the New York Times estimates that natural gas will one day grow from 20 percent of the energy market in the U.S. to 40 percent.

That growth in natural gas will be at the expense of coal, and is largely due to recent discoveries that the U.S. has a whole lot more reserves of natural gas in shale deposits. A geophysics professor at Stanford University (and a personal friend of mine) Mark Zoback, told me recently that through better technology and recovery tools, we’ve discovered that the U.S. now has an estimated resource of over 2,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That’s — in a word — massive.

Zoback told me he thinks that the newly discovered natural gas resource will help to stabilize the price for natural gas, making it more attractive for both the gas producers and utilities (fluctuating prices has deterred more use of natural gas for power production). And Zoback pegs that price around $6 per million BTUs. That could help natural gas beat coal on price, meaning natural gas could actually be an economic replacement for coal power.

Natural gas has significantly fewer carbon (and toxic) emissions than coal. Zoback estimated that by replacing 30 percent of coal-fired generation with gas (without CCS) it would get the U.S. almost to the point of what the current climate bills call for: a 17-20 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2020. With carbon capture technologies, gas power could cut carbon emissions even more.

The abundant natural gas reserves could also be used for vehicles — something T. Boone Pickens has been advocating for months. While I’m not convinced the natural gas vehicle market will ever take off outside of enterprise fleets, trucks and buses, natural gas vehicles could play a significant role in cutting carbon emissions. Here’s how the economics of natural gas vehicles works.

While natural gas is less fun to talk about than buzzy startups like Bloom Energy or EEStor — and yes it still emits CO2 — it’s one of the dominant ways that the U.S. will realistically move away from coal and toward a clean power future. Consider it a “bridge technology,” too a carbon-free future.

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