Understanding Our Natural Gas Addiction

Natural gas is the third most popular fossil and provides 21% of our current energy need.1 However, how has natural gas become such a popular energy source and why do we like it so much?

Q1 // What Exactly is Natural Gas?

Natural gas is an odourless mixture of gases made up primarily of methane – a highly flammable gas that comes jam-packed with energy.2 Natural gas is generally found in underground reservoirs alongside crude oil and, like crude oil, was formed hundreds of millions of years from organic compounds.3 Generally, natural gas is extracted at the same time as crude oil and usually emerges naturally to the surface as soon as the oil reservoir is penetrated.4

Gas wells extract natural gas trapped within sedimentary rock formations.5

Q2 // Why Do We Like It?

We like natural gas because it is cheap. It costs around 1.5¢ per kWh, half of the price of crude oil.6 In addition, compared to coal or crude oil, natural gas is smoke-free, and due to its gaseous state, it can easily be pumped into homes via pipes.7 All these benefits make it a particularly popular fuel choice for domestic use, including heating and cooking.8 Natural gas is also popular for electricity generation because of its low cost and relatively low carbon emissions.9 However, in the transport sector, natural gas is not so popular, mainly because natural gas takes up a lot of space and therefore limits the vehicle’s range.10

Q3 // How Much Natural Gas Do We Consume?

Currently, we consume more than three and a half trillion cubic metres of natural gas per year.11 Of our annual natural gas consumption, around 20% is used for buildings, 18% for industry, and only 3% for transportation.12 Of the remaining 59%, a massive 65% is used for electricity production.13

Natural gas can be liquefied and transported between continents by container ships.

Q4 // How is Natural Gas Transformed Into Electricity?

The energy contained in natural gas is most commonly transformed into electricity by combining a gas turbine with a steam turbine into what is called a combined cycle turbine.14 The gas turbine is used to generate electricity, and the steam turbine is used to generate additional electricity from the waste heat.15 The addition of the steam turbine considerably increases the efficiency when compared to coal and crude oil, with as much as 60% of the energy contained within natural gas converted to electricity. 16 As a result, creating electricity from natural gas is very cost-effective.

Q5 // How Much Does the Electricity Cost?

Electricity generated using natural gas costs around 7¢ per kWh.17 This makes it around 40% cheaper than either coal or crude oil.

Q6 // That’s Cheap! Does That Mean Natural Gas Creates More Emissions?

For each kWh of energy extracted from natural gas, 180 grams of carbon dioxide is released.For each kWh of energy extracted from natural gas, 180 grams of carbon dioxide is released.18 This means it produces around 10% less carbon dioxide than crude oil and just under 40% less than coal. When natural gas is used for electricity, the amount of carbon dioxide released increases to 490 grams.19 This is 25% less than when crude oil is used and over 40% less than when coal is used.

In total, the worldwide consumption of natural gas is responsible for a huge 6.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere each year.20 That’s enough carbon dioxide to fill London’s Millennium Dome more than one and a half million times over.21

Natural gas power plants can usually be identified by a series of tall and slender exhaust towers.

Q7 // What Are We Currently Doing to Reduce Natural Gas Consumption?

At the moment, we are doing very little. Current projections forecast that the demand for natural gas will increase by 60% by the year 2050.22 This means that by 2050, we are expected to be emitting more than 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, all due to our love of natural gas. That’s the equivalent of an extra one million Millennium Domes worth of carbon dioxide every year!23

Q8 // Are We Likely to Run Out Anytime Soon?

Based on current consumption levels, we have around 100 years of reserves left.24 That may seem like a lot, but if our demand for natural gas continues to increase, our reserves will fall to just 65 years worth.25 To combat this, many countries are already starting to use hydraulic fracturing,26 also known as ‘fracking’, which draws extra natural gas out of the earth in places where it is harder to extract.27 This involves pumping chemicals deep into the earth’s surface, which creates cracks in the rock formations that release the trapped gas.28 Using this method, it is believed that there is an extra 50 years worth of natural gas supply in the world.29 The problem with this method is that hundreds of chemicals are used, some of which are toxic, such as methanol, naphthalene, benzene and lead.30 Consequently, hydraulic fracturing can lead to the contamination of the surrounding environment.31

Q9 // Can We Make Natural Gas Carbon-Free?

Capturing the carbon dioxide from natural gas fed directly into buildings is not feasible. This is because most buildings have no space to store the captured carbon dioxide within while it awaits collection. Added to this, the cost of constructing all the individual carbon capture devices required would most likely be prohibitively expensive. When it comes to power plants though, carbon capture is entirely feasible. Unfortunately, it does come with a price hike of around 40%.32 This means that emission-free electricity from natural gas would likely cost around 10¢ per kWh, a tad more expensive than generating electricity from coal.

Natural Gas in a Nutshell

To summarise, natural gas is a cost-effective energy source that is primarily used to generate electricity. However, using natural gas produces large quantities of carbon dioxide – the key driver of climate change. When natural gas is used to generate electricity, the carbon dioxide can be captured, however, this increases the cost by around 40%. While this is not unaffordable, it is likely more than many people are willing to pay. We are not limited to natural gas, coal and crude oil for meeting our energy demand though. There are also the nuclear options – uranium and thorium.

Image Credits

Title image taken by Oleg Doroshin and reproduced under license from Adobe Stock.

Image of gas storage tanks taken by Supakitmod and reproduced under license from Adobe Stock.

Image of container ship taken by Altin Osmanaj and reproduced under license from Adobe Stock.

Image of natural gas power plant taken by Lefteris Papulakis and reproduced under license from Shutterstock.

General Notes

For the total landmass of the UK, a figure of 248,532 square kilometres has been used. The figure has been sourced from UK Office for National Statistics – 'The UK and Its Countries: Facts and Figures' – www.ons.gov.uk.

Barrels of oil equivalent based on 1628.2 kWh of energy being contained within each barrel. Data sourced from Unit Juggler – 'Converter: Barrel of Oil Equivalent to Kilowatt-Hour' – unitjuggler.com.

Article Endnotes

  1. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – 'World: Balances for 2012' – www.iea.org.
  2. Essential Energy – ‘What is Natural Gas?’ – www.essentialenergy.com.au.
  3. Union of Concerned Scientists – ‘How Natural Gas Is Formed’ – www.ucsusa.org.
  4. Adventures in Energy – ‘Separating Oil, Natural Gas and Water’ – www.adventuresinenergy.org.
  5. U.S. Energy Information Administration – ‘Shale in the United States’ – www.eia.gov.
  6. Based on January 2014 data sourced from IndexMundi – ‘Natural Gas Monthly Price’ – www.indexmundi.com.
  7. Encyclopaedia Britannica – ‘Heating’ – www.britannica.com.
  8. Based on coal making up 4%, oil making up 10% and gas making up 19% of domestic energy demand.  Sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org.
  9. NaturalGas.org – ‘Electrical Uses’ – www.naturalgas.org.
  10. Harris, William – ‘How NaturalGas Vehicles Work’ – howstuffworks.com.
  11. Based on 2013 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘Natural Gas’ – www.iea.org.
  12. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org.
  13. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org. Figures include both electricity plants and combined heat and power plants.
  14. EDF Energy – ‘How Electricity Is Generated Through Gas’ – www.edfenergy.com.
  15. EDF Energy – ‘How Electricity Is Generated Through Gas’ – www.edfenergy.com.
  16. Siemens AG – ‘Gas Turbine SGT5-8000H’ – www.energy.siemens.com.
  17. Based on June 2015 data for an advanced gas-fired combined cycle power plant. Sourced from United States Energy Information Administration – ‘Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2015’ – Pages 6.
  18. Environmental Protection Agency – ‘Title 40: Protection of Environment’ – Table C-1.
  19. EDF Energy – ‘Measuring Energy’s Contribution to Climate Change’ – www.edfenergy.com.
  20. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion: Highlights’ – Page 45.
  21. Calculation based on the Millennium Dome having a volume of 2.1 million cubic metres. Volume sourced from Barnes, Michael and Dickinson, Michael – ‘Widespan Roof Structures’ – Thomas Telford – Page 137.
  22. Based on a projected demand of 3.54 trillion cubic metres in 2015 and a projected demand of 5.87 trillion cubic metres in 2050. Data sourced from Nehring, Richard – ‘Traversing the Mountaintop: World Fossil Fuel Production to 2050’ – Page 9.
  23. Calculation based on the Millennium Dome having a volume of 2.1 million cubic metres. Volume sourced from Barnes, Michael and Dickinson, Michael – ‘Widespan Roof Structures’ – Thomas Telford – Page 137.
  24. Based on 441 trillion cubic metres of non-shale wet natural gas reserves available, methane forming 85% of the wet natural gas and the human-kind consuming dry natural gas at a rate of 3.54 trillion cubic metres per year. Non-shale wet natural gas reserves sourced from United States Energy Information Administration – ‘Technically Recoverable Shale Oil and Shale Gas Resources: An Assessment of 137 Shale Formations in 41 Countries Outside the United States’ – Page 3. Methane ratio sourced from United States Energy Development Corporation – ‘Natural Gas: Dry vs Wet’ – Datasheet. Dry natural gas consumption sourced from Nehring, Richard – ‘Traversing the Mountaintop: World Fossil Fuel Production to 2050’ – Page 9.
  25. Figure assumes a gradual increase in gas demand up to a high point of 8.2 trillion cubic metres in 2085.
  26. Kass, Stephen L. – ‘Worldwide: Countries Approach Fracking with Interest and Caution’ – www.mondaq.com.
  27. Earthworks – ‘Hydraulic Fracturing 101’ – www.earthworksaction.org.
  28. Earthworks – ‘Hydraulic Fracturing 101’ – www.earthworksaction.org.
  29. Based on 207 trillion cubic metres of shale wet natural gas reserves available, methane forming 85% of the wet natural gas and human-kind consuming dry natural gas at a rate of 3.54 trillion cubic metres per year. Shale wet natural gas reserves sourced from United States Energy Information Administration – ‘Technically Recoverable Shale Oil and Shale Gas Resources: An Assessment of 137 Shale Formations in 41 Countries Outside the United States’ – Page 3. Methane ratio sourced from United States Energy Development Corporation – ‘Natural Gas: Dry vs Wet’ – Page 1. Dry natural gas consumption sourced from Nehring, Richard – ‘Traversing the Mountaintop: World Fossil Fuel Production to 2050’ – Page 9.
  30. Broderick et al. – ‘Shale Gas: An Updated Assessment of Environmental and Climate Change Impacts’ – Pages 9.
  31. Broderick et al. – ‘Shale Gas: An Updated Assessment of Environmental and Climate Change Impacts’ – Pages I and 9.
  32. Based on an advanced natural gas combined cycle power plant costing $72.6 per megawatt-hour of energy and an advanced carbon capture and storage combined cycle power plant costing $100.2 per megawatt-hour of energy. Sourced from United States Energy Information Administration – ‘Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2015’ – Page 6.

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