Leveraging the natural gas boom to cut carbon

While global greenhouse gas emissions continue to soar, U.S. emissions are back down to where they were in the mid-1990s. This decline is partly due to the economic downturn, but a key contributor has been electricity generators’ shift from coal to natural gas.

Natural gas generated 30 percent of U.S. electricity last year, doubling in a decade. But there are opportunities beyond electricity generation – in buildings, manufacturing and transportation – where expanded natural gas use could help reduce emissions in the near and medium term.

A new report by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions examines both the challenges and the opportunities in leveraging the U.S. natural gas boom to cut emissions.

The opportunities for reducing greenhouse gases we found include:

  • Increased direct use of natural gas in homes and businesses by replacing certain electric appliances, such as space and water heaters, with natural gas models.
  • Expanded use of natural gas-powered fuel cells and microturbines producing efficient, on-site energy that makes use of waste heat.
  • Manufacturing growth with lower emissions by using natural gas in more efficient combined heat and power systems.
  • Reduced reliance on petroleum and reduced emissions by substituting natural gas for diesel and gasoline in centrally fueled fleets and heavy-duty trucks.

To maximize the climate benefits of increased natural gas use, we must overcome a number of challenges. First and foremost, we must continue to take steps throughout the natural gas system to reduce leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is the primary component of natural gas.

To achieve the steep carbon reductions needed in the long term, we must also ensure that abundant natural gas doesn’t crowd out zero-carbon energy sources such as wind, solar and nuclear, and that it doesn’t deter energy efficiency and carbon capture-and-storage technologies. Natural gas and renewables should be thought of as complements, not competitors. Natural gas can back up solar and wind, which aren't always available, and renewables can hedge against price swings in natural gas.

Substituting natural gas for other fossil fuels cannot be the sole basis for long-term U.S. efforts to address climate change. But strategically used, natural gas can provide measurable, near-term climate benefits. And in the long run, natural gas combined with carbon capture and storage could provide a nearly zero-carbon energy alternative.   

Opportunities to meaningfully address the nation's energy and climate challenges won't materialize on their own. We'll need to educate consumers and manufacturers about their options and encourage innovative financing models and incentives to extend natural gas lines and promote on-site power generation. State polices will also need to be aligned to encourage development of distributed generation technologies.

Done in the right way, the United States can leverage this natural gas boom to help both the economy and the climate.