Untapped Resource: Natural Gas: Safer Cleaner Energy That Pays for Itself

By Frodl, Michael G.; Manoyan, John M. | National Defense, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Untapped Resource: Natural Gas: Safer Cleaner Energy That Pays for Itself


Frodl, Michael G., Manoyan, John M., National Defense


Unlike renewable energy sources, natural gas is a proven fuel with mature associated technologies. And it has a cost advantage over other forms of energy such as wind, solar and geothermal. Along with clean coal, natural gas is perhaps the most practical energy option for the United States to decrease its dependence on foreign oil and reduce its vulnerability to outside threats.

Natural gas is methane, which is what remains after gases extracted from underground are refined and others such as butane and propane are removed. Natural gas occurs geologically either with crude oil or by itself. While Russia has the world's largest reserves, North America is not far behind. When burned, natural gas emits significantly less C [O.sup.2] and fewer traditional pollutants per unit weight than does oil. Of the three main fossil fuels, natural gas is the poorest in carbon content per unit weight, while coal is the richest, and crude oil that is refined into products like gasoline, is somewhere in between.

Natural gas and oil have had a competitive historical existence. Back in the 19th century, light was provided to American homes by the burning of whale oil and candles made from animal fats. When it was discovered that the black liquid oozing out of the ground and destroying the resale value of farms in Pennsylvania was actually an asset to be prized, whale oil and candles were replaced by the first commercially successful refined product from crude oil: kerosene.

Well before natural gas became the darling fossil fuel of environmentalists because it was cleaner burning and less polluting than oil or coal, it was primarily used as a key input for making chemicals, including fertilizers and explosives.

Some players in the chemical industry have moved parts of their production abroad where natural gas is produced more cheaply. An example is the proposed joint venture between Dow Chemical and the Kuwaiti government. Dow would provide the specialized technologies to use natural gas to produce anything from plastics to petrochemicals and Kuwait would contribute capital, land and the raw materials. This project is on hold because of a contract dispute but it will most likely restart soon.

There are many ways to respond to either the high price or the low supply of natural gas at home. One possibility is to use the vast supplies of U.S. coal to produce gas fuel through coal gasification. Instead of burning coal the old fashioned way, coal is crushed into superfine particles and baked without igniting it. The baked coal emits gases which can be made into synthetic natural gas. The big barrier to this solution is not the technology, which continues to be refined and improved, but the cost.

Just like many other alternative energy projects, synthetic natural gas from coal gasification is cost-effective only when natural gas from traditional sources is expensive enough and/or in short enough supply. While that is not the case today, it certainly looked that way only last summer. Factors other than the spot price of natural gas should also be kept in mind when considering building some domestic capacity in coal gasification plants. The abundant supply of coal in the United States represents a real advantage. Part of the future for coal may well be tied to providing synthetic gas to help meet some of the demand for natural gas, just as oil from tar sands or other less traditional sources can help meet demand for crude oil.

Natural gas has the greatest potential for replacing some capacity in coal-burning power plants. "Combined cycle" systems that use gas turbines and steam turbines together to produce electricity are extremely efficient. The problem is that most utilities still use natural gas only for peak output. Coal and nuclear power are still cheaper and more reliable to run continuously. Only when peak rates are in effect--for example, during the day time in the summer when it's hot and everyone is running their air conditioner --is electricity from natural gas considered economical.

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Untapped Resource: Natural Gas: Safer Cleaner Energy That Pays for Itself
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