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King Natural Gas – Technology Review

September 16, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Burning natural gas, which is mainly methane, produces far less carbon dioxide than burning coal. UCSD’s David ­Victor, for one, estimates that a modern gas-fired power plant emits roughly two-fifths as much carbon as even a new coal plant. According to his calculations, the United States is saving about 400 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually in the recent switch to natural gas from coal. That’s roughly twice as much progress as the European Union has made in complying with the Kyoto Protocol through policy efforts. “There is no single event that has had as large and sustained an impact on carbon emissions as the gas revolution,” he says.

But optimism about the environmental benefits should be tempered. For one thing, utilities might return to using more coal as increased demand makes natural gas more expensive. Another concern is that extracting and transporting natural gas itself generates greenhouse gases. Dueling studies have published varied and sometimes contradictory estimates of the total emissions associated with natural-­gas production, but the contributing factors include the energy used in the extraction process and the fact that methane—an extremely potent greenhouse gas—is released during drilling and leaks from pipelines during transport. In fact, there are no reliable measurements of how much energy drilling for shale gas consumes or how much methane actually escapes.

In any case, it’s clear that switching from coal to natural gas will not come close to delivering the huge reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions that most scientists contend are needed by midcentury to ward off the worst effects of climate change. According to estimates by economist Henry Jacoby and his colleagues at MIT, the increased use of shale gas might lower carbon emissions somewhat in the next five to 10 years, but at best it will keep them flat through 2050. In other words, there is a short window of opportunity to begin inventing and deploying cleaner technologies. Jacoby predicts that natural-gas prices will stay relatively low over the next decade, climbing slowly to around $5 to $6 per million BTUs—still making it hard for renewables to compete.

The “real elephant sitting in the room,” Jacoby says, is that we don’t have a climate policy aimed at penalizing carbon emissions, which would provide an incentive to invest in cleaner technologies. “The benefit of renewables is simply that they don’t emit carbon dioxide,” he says.

via King Natural Gas – Technology Review.

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