Natural gas usage will have little effect on CO2 emissions, research finds

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Abundant supplies of natural gas will do little to reduce harmful U.S. emissions causing climate change, according to researchers at UC Irvine, Stanford University, and the nonprofit organization Near Zero. They found that inexpensive gas boosts electricity consumption and hinders expansion of cleaner energy sources, such as wind and solar.

The study results, which appear Sept. 24 in the journal Environmental Research Letters, are based on modeling the effect of high and low gas supplies on the U.S. power sector. Coal-fired plants, the nation's largest source of power, also produce vast quantities of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas polluting the Earth's atmosphere. Recently proposed rules by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rely heavily on the substitution of for coal to lower by 2030.

"In our results, abundant natural gas does not significantly lower . This is true even if no methane leaks during production and shipping," said lead author Christine Shearer, a postdoctoral scholar in Earth system science at UC Irvine.

Previous studies have focused on the risk of natural gas – composed primarily of methane – leaking into the atmosphere from wells and pipelines. But the new work shows that even if no methane escapes, the overall climate benefits of gas are likely to be small because its use delays the widespread construction of low-carbon energy facilities, such as solar arrays. Analyzing a range of climate policies, the researchers found that high gas usage could actually boost cumulative emissions between 2013 and 2055 by 5 percent – and, at most, trim them by 9 percent.

"Natural gas has been presented as a bridge to a low-carbon future, but what we see is that it's actually a major detour. We find that the only effective paths to reducing greenhouse gases are a regulatory cap or a carbon tax," Shearer said.

She and her co-authors conclude that greater use of gas is a poor strategy for clearing the atmosphere.

"Cutting emissions by burning natural gas is like dieting by eating reduced-fat cookies," said Steven Davis, assistant professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine and the study's principal investigator. "It may be better than eating full-fat cookies, but if you really want to lose weight, you probably need to avoid cookies altogether."


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Replacing coal and oil with natural gas will not help fight global warming

Journal information: Environmental Research Letters

Citation: Natural gas usage will have little effect on CO2 emissions, research finds (2014, September 24) retrieved 21 July 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2014-09-natural-gas-usage-effect-co2.html
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Sep 24, 2014
Natural gas reserves should be conserved for emergency cases or times of exceptional variability. Burning thorugh them as a primary go-to for energy makes them very little different from any other fossil fuel.

Sep 24, 2014
because its use delays the widespread construction of low-carbon energy facilities, such as solar arrays


I think that's a little fallacious, as Methane is often used as a back-up for solar power systems.

Methane has to be cleaner than other hydrocarbons, because it has 4 hydrogens per carbon atom, which means you can bind a total of 4 Oxygen per carbon atom (2 in CO2 plus 2H2O). Other hydrocarbons approach a limit of 3 Oxygen per carbon atom, so Methane should approach a limit of approximately 33% cleaner per unit energy.

Propane binds 3.3 Oxygens per carbon atom.

Butane binds 3.25 Oxygen per carbon atom.

Hexane(gasoline) byinds 19/6, or 3.15 Oxygen per carbon atom.

4/(19/6) = 24/19 = 1.263

Which means Methane should theoretically produce roughly 26% more energy per unit Carbon than Gasoline, probably more vs Coal.

Now all bonds aren't exactly equal in energy level, and there's losses in capture, storage, and transport, but you see the point here...

Sep 24, 2014
"Natural gas has been presented as a bridge to a low-carbon future, but what we see is that it's actually a major detour. We find that the only effective paths to reducing greenhouse gases are a regulatory cap or a carbon tax," Shearer said.


That's begging the question.

Cheap energy in general makes other things cheap. Increased tax burden has the opposite effect. That in turn has the effect of turning industries away and lowering the domesting purchasing power through outsourcing and imports.

In other words, instead of making solar power competitive, it has the effect of making domestically produced solar panels more expensive and the people less able to afford them. It also shifts production into China, where the solar panels will be manufactured with energy from coal and oil.


Sep 24, 2014
Natural gas reserves should be conserved for emergency cases or times of exceptional variability. Burning thorugh them as a primary go-to for energy makes them very little different from any other fossil fuel.


In any concievable future where you have no grid-scale storage for renewable energy, the majority of energy inputs necessarily come from something else than wind or solar power because their peak output cannot exceed the overall demand.

Wind power has peak-to-average output ratio of 5:1 and Solar power has 5:1 to 8:1 depending on location, and the combination of both assumes something in between depending on the mix. That means you are limited to producing between 10-20% of your total demand (heat+electricity) with these sources and the rest of the energy has to come from somewhere else.

Currently that "somewhere else" is hydroelectricity and natural gas. Coal and nuclear power come as good seconds.

Sep 24, 2014
Of course it is possible to generate greater portions than 20% of the total demand with wind and solar, but it comes at a cost because you have to build extra capacity and then throttle it to keep the peak supply following the demand. Beyond the 20% point, the marginal cost of production of renewables starts to rise exponentially because integrating more is less and less effective.

That's why saying "cheap gas hinders renewable energy" is very disingenuous, because renewable energy is hitting scalability issues and in many places is already unable to provide any more energy. Countries are exporting large portions of their renewable power because they can't use it themselves, and if their neighbors start to invest in renewables, they're in big trouble with nobody to buy their surplus.

Rather, it's the cheap gas that is keeping the whole thing running and the prices tolerable.

Sep 24, 2014
In any concievable future where you have no grid-scale storage for renewable energy,

Yeah, but those futures aren't realistic...so...meh.

peak output cannot exceed the overall demand

Why not? If peak output from renewables (given no storage) exceeds demand then it is shed or the wind/solar powerplants are taken off-grid for the duration. Happens all the time.

Sep 24, 2014
Yeah, but those futures aren't realistic...so...meh.


Realistic? Well, where are the grid scale storage devices then?

The problem with the storage technologies are that they too have scalability issues, efficiency issues, and cost issues. Until those are solved, and for however long that takes, we essentially have no realistic future in renewable energy. Just meaningless hype and wishful thinking.

Why not? If peak output from renewables (given no storage) exceeds demand then it is shed or the wind/solar powerplants are taken off-grid for the duration. Happens all the time.


Because you have to do exactly that.

It starts to make little sense to build any more because having more solar panels or windmills just means you have to utilize them less. The more over the demand you build, the less additional energy each additional unit will contribute, and the larger the problems you have in transmitting it, which results in lowering the energy return and increasing the cost.

Sep 24, 2014
It wouldn't be such a huge issue if the difference between peak to average production of these technologies were smaller, but because wind power typically produces half of its total energy in just 15% of the running time, it actually produces a good majority of its output in short intense surges that last from hours to a couple days.

The rest of the time it more or less idles or shuts down entirely for about a day in a week.The UK statistics for windmills over the region indicate that they can be "relied upon" to produce only 3-5% of their nominal power on a random day, with a "low wind" event every 6.28 days when the whole system is practically producing zero or negative energy because of the parasitic use (heating&systems power). The actual output is below 10% for a third of the time, and below 20% for half of the time.

That's why large amounts of wind power will exceed demand practically every other time the wind picks up, and why having more peak capacity than demand is futile

Sep 24, 2014
Solar panels are a bit better in that respect because they do tend to produce power during the actual peak demand, and very consistently so. They can displace a lot of conventional power for about 6 hours of the day.

They just don't follow the seasonal variation very well, with peak output in the summer with little demand, and no output in the winter with peak demand - at least for the majority of the world's population, and specifically for Europe.

So again, building more solar panels will give you excess in the summer when you don't really need it, and nothing in the winter when you really want it. The only solution is to build a honking big battery or something that accomplishes the same end, or you'll never be able to utilize more than a few percent of solar energy in the grid.


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