Bridging the Gap with Natural Gas
By Scott Gates
Fossil fuels are the backbone of the nation’s energy supply. Almost half of all our electricity comes from burning coal, and oil remains the dominant transportation fuel option.
Electricity generation accounts for 30 percent of all natural gas used in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Of the remainder, 34 percent is used in industry, 13 percent for commercial purposes, and 20 percent goes to residential uses such as heating and cooking.
A third type of fossil fuel, natural gas, is increasingly in the spotlight. In addition to its use for home heating and cooking, natural gas has surged as a way to keep your lights on amidst steadily growing demand for electricity. Some are also advocating increased use of natural gas as a fuel for our cars.
“Natural gas-fired power plants are presently an easier option than building a coal or nuclear plant,” says John Holt, senior principal for generation & fuel at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). “You can manufacture the parts for gas turbines quicker, and site and build a facility more rapidly – and with less opposition. If other types of generation are ruled out, as is becoming commonplace, natural gas becomes the only alternative left for a reliable baseload power supply.”
By 2012, it is anticipated that a little more than 35,000 MW of new generation will come on-line nationwide as new power plants are built to meet growing demand. Natural gas will be used to generate more of that power as plans for coal-fired plants are challenged in many states. The risk with gas, however, is that it relies on an increasingly scarce and expensive fuel source.
Natural gas emits about half the carbon dioxide as coal. For this reason, and for the relative ease of building a natural gas-fired plant, more than half of the 21,000 MW the nation’s co-ops alone expect to add over the next 10 years will be gas-fired.
Utilities across the country are including natural gas generation as a bigger part of resource plans, along with renewable energy and efficiency measures, in an effort to make up for delayed coal-fired and nuclear generation.
“If you can’t build coal or nuclear, natural gas must pick up much of the slack,” says NRECA’s Holt. “Where it may take six or seven years to build a coal plant after permitting and construction and 10 years or more to get a nuclear plant up and running, a natural gas generator can be brought into service relatively quickly.”
Simple gas-fired turbines — similar to jet engines on blocks — can be built in around 18 months. A combined-cycle unit that creates steam for extra generation can be up and running in just two years. And because a natural gas plant can be “fired up” in a hurry and operates more cheaply than generators running on diesel fuel, they’ve long been the choice for “peaking plants” that are called on during times of high electricity use.
Although natural gas generators work well as peaking plants the problem with relying on gas for baseload power is its price volatility and expense.
As demand for electricity surges, growing fuel cost concerns plague natural gas. The price of natural gas has tripled since 2002 and jumped 93 percent since August 2007 alone.
Price fluctuations in natural gas really come down to supply and demand. In 2006, the United States used 21.6 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas, with 29 percent going to electric power. Of that amount, 19 percent was imported, most of which came via pipeline from Canada. The remainder was drawn from rapidly dwindling domestic resources.
If plans for new coal and nuclear plants continue to be replaced in favor of natural gas plants over the next few decades, these imports will undoubtedly increase.
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