There is no doubt that we need to decarbonize our energy infrastructure, but renewable energy sources are simply not coming online fast enough for us to switch overnight. In our opinion, we need a “bridge” fuel to sustain us through the transition to a renewable energy future that is powered by solar, wind, and other clean technologies.
Fossil fuels will remain a key part of our energy infrastructure for the next 50 years. There is a direct correlation between energy usage and standard of living, and it is politically unfeasible for wealthy countries to deny developing countries access to cheap electricity from fossil fuels. On average, people in a wealthy country like the United States consume petroleum products at a rate of roughly 3.5 gallons of oil and 250 cubic feet of natural gas per day.
Current estimates say that demand for energy is increasing at about 2.1% per year. As the world uses more energy, we need to deliver that energy in an environmentally friendly manner.
In 2013, roughly 14% of US electrical generation came from renewable sources. According to current estimates, renewable energy will only account for 18% of US electrical generation by 2040. As you can see, renewable energy generation is increasing, but not at a fast enough pace to become our primary power source in the near future. In fact, energy efficiency (in appliances, lighting, cars etc.) has so far been more impactful than renewables when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint.
While we develop our renewable energy supply, we will still require fossil fuels to sustain our way of life. In our opinion, this fossil fuel should be natural gas for the following reasons:
- We have lots of natural gas.
- Natural gas burns much cleaner than coal.
- Natural gas can be used to generate electricity, or directly burned in cars for transportation.
We have lots of natural gas. The shale gas revolution that has been happening since 2005 has allowed us economic access to lots of natural gas reserves. At current consumption rates, we have over 200 years of natural gas supply. This should be more than enough gas to carry us through the transition to have renewable technologies be our primary power source.
Natural gas burns much cleaner than coal. To produce the same amount of energy, natural gas only produces 56% of the CO2 that coal does. Furthermore, natural gas only emits 20% the NOx and .03% of the SO2 when compared with coal. Even if we don’t consider the difference in CO2 emissions, the reduced amount of pollution that would result from burning natural gas instead of coal would save many lives. Currently, air pollution is linked to 1.2 million premature deaths a year in China.
Natural gas can be used to generate electricity, or directly burned in cars for transportation. A very straightforward method to reduce our carbon emissions is to replace coal power plants with natural gas ones. This change will have an immediate impact, and there is no ambiguous technical issues that we need to overcome. Furthermore, there are vehicles that can run directly on natural gas by burning it instead of gasoline or diesel.
The place of natural gas as a reliable “bridge fuel” comes as a result of its abundance as well as its clean burning characteristics (when compared with other fossil fuels). In future articles, we will examine what environmental factors we need to consider in order to responsibly produce the natural gas required to sustain us while we decarbonize our energy system.