Climate Compass Blog
The increased availability of natural gas is leading to its expanded use worldwide. Substituting natural gas for coal as a fuel for generating electricity helps reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change because burning natural gas emits only about half as much carbon as burning coal.
But half isn’t zero.
That’s why it’s important to note the recent announcement in the United Kingdom of the next step in building the first full-scale commercial natural gas power plant using carbon capture and storage (CCS).
In the Peterhead CCS project, international oil company Shell and British utility Scottish and Southern Energy Company are teaming up to retrofit a 385 MW natural gas power plant to capture post-combustion carbon dioxide (CO2). Pipelines will take the CO2 to permanent storage in a depleted hydrocarbon reservoir two kilometers under the North Sea. When the project, which received U.K. government incentives, comes online in 2018, it will be able to capture and store 1 million tons of CO2 each year for 10 years.
We typically think of CCS as a technology for coal-fueled power plants. In North America, CCS will be used on a commercial scale at coal power plants under construction in Mississippi and Saskatchewan. Four other U.S. coal power plants using either coal or petcoke with CCS are in the planning phases.
However, applying CCS to natural gas facilities as well will be increasingly important as the use of natural gas grows.
While much attention has focused on the natural gas boom in the United States, production and use are rising worldwide in both developed and developing countries. Some analysts project that natural gas will become the developed world’s dominant fuel by mid-century. BP’s Energy Outlook expects global natural gas use to grow at an annual rate of 1.9 percent through 2035, outpacing the growth of other fossil fuels (oil and coal), with 78 percent of that growth occurring in non-OECD countries.
In the United States, increasing supplies of natural gas – especially unconventional natural gas produced from shale through hydraulic fracturing – have encouraged some power companies to switch from coal. That has helped reduce total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to the levels of the mid-1990s. However, recent increases in natural gas prices mean that coal-fired generation and emissions are again ticking upward.
While several countries are attempting to replicate the U.S. success at developing shale gas, increased supplies are coming mostly from new conventional reserves in places like Australia, the Eastern Mediterranean, and East Africa. This increased availability comes at a time of great change in the power sectors of countries ranging from post-Fukushima Japan to rapidly growing China and Brazil to African countries making energy access a priority for development.
For example, China is planning to reduce its reliance on coal by doubling the use of natural gas from 2011 levels by 2015. Most of this natural gas will be imported, although the government hopes to increase domestic production through shale gas. South Africa is also looking to make natural gas an alternative to coal, mostly through imports of conventional supplies, but also by increasing domestic shale production.
Whether countries are replacing old coal power plants or meeting new energy needs, these new natural gas-fueled assets will be around for decades to come. While the difference in emissions between combusted coal and natural gas is significant, that reduction alone is not enough to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change.
We have technology that allows us to capture up to 90 percent of the carbon emissions from power plants and industrial facilities and safely use that CO2 or store it underground.
Unfortunately, absent a price on carbon, CCS is relatively expensive. We’ll need more private and public research to lower costs and government incentives to help commercialize the technology, especially for natural gas facilities.
The Peterhead CCS project is an important first step toward ensuring that the natural gas power plants being built today are part of the solution to climate change.
Last week, Hubei Province became the sixth jurisdiction in China to launch a pilot carbon emissions trading program, joining Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, and Guangdong Province. In the coming months, two additional programs will be introduced in Chongqing and Qingdao. In total, the eight pilot programs will cover an estimated one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (MTCO2), second only to the European Union’s Emissions Trading System. The pilot trading programs are part of the strategy laid out in China’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) to reduce carbon intensity (CO2 emissions per unit of GDP) by 40-45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.
As the world’s largest energy consumer and emitter of carbon dioxide, China’s efforts to rein in emissions are significant at both the global and national level. In addition to the carbon trading pilots, China recently announced measures to limit coal to 65 percent of primary domestic energy consumption by 2017, down from 69 percent in 2011, while also banning new coal generation in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
Clean energy and energy efficiency can save wear and tear on the environment and climate, but sometimes it takes money to take action. And in a time of tight government budgets, where will that money come from?
A new and growing solution to this energy finance problem is called the “green bank” or “clean energy bank” -- government-created institutions that help facilitate private sector financing for clean technology projects. States have used a variety of tools and incentives over the years to promote technology deployment. Green banks put many of the tools used to encourage private investment in one place.
Connecticut was the first state to open a green bank in 2011, and the idea is catching. New York opened a green bank in February. California state Sen. Kevin De Leon has proposed creating a green bank in his state. And U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) plans to introduce legislation to establish a federal green bank.
Green or clean energy banks can leverage a small amount of public money to significantly increase private investment in clean technologies. This leads to accelerated deployment of solar power, energy efficiency upgrades, and other clean technologies without creating a large burden on public budgets.
A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal dredges up debunked conclusions drawn from a cherry-picked set of temperature measurements to try to call into question the reality and potential severity of climate change.
In a nutshell, authors Richard McNider and John Christy argue that warming in the upper atmosphere since 1979 is less than models had predicted and, therefore, models can’t be trusted and climate change shouldn’t be a concern.
In fact, virtually all climate data and research show that the Earth is warming. And it will continue to do so if we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And this warming will bring an increased risk of more frequent and intense heat waves, higher sea levels, and more severe droughts, wildfires, and downpours.
To get at the facts, we can draw on recent climate assessments, including the State of the Climate report compiled by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I report, and the National Research Council’s America’s Climate Choices, plus other recent research (Thorne et al., 2011, Santer et al., 2013).
Based on this research, here are three things to keep in mind:
A lot of folks in the eastern half of the United States are breathing a sigh of relief that spring is just around the corner. Average temperatures this winter were among the Top 10 coldest in some parts of the Upper Midwest and South. More than 90 percent of the surface of the Great Lakes is frozen, the highest in 35 years.
But while East Coast and Midwest kids have been sledding and their parents have been shoveling, it has not been cold everywhere. In fact, many areas are unusually warm.
In Alaska, January temperatures were as high as they have been in 30 years. The Iditarod dogsled race was especially treacherous this month because of a lack of snow. Crews had to stockpile and dump snow on the ground at the finish line in Nome, where temperatures earlier this winter broke a record.
Globally, January was the fourth warmest on record – really – despite pockets of well-below-normal temperatures in parts of the United States. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), most areas of the world experienced warmer-than-average monthly temperatures. For example:
- China experienced its second warmest January on record.
- France tied its warmest January.
- Parts of Brazil and Australia saw record heat.