Electricity generation supplied by natural gas-fired power plants has increased from 30% of US electricity generation in the summer of 2014 to a forecasted 37% this summer, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The amount of electricity generation coming from coal, on the other hand, will fall to an expected 30% this year. Several factors are thought to be driving these shifts, including dropping costs of natural gas as well as changing environmental regulations and supportive policies for renewable energy. Power plant operators have been significantly increasing natural gas-fired generating capacity this year, and solar and wind generating capacity are also on the rise in the electric industry. (Source: www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=36652)
This increasing use of natural gas in place of coal is generally considered to be a good thing, since natural gas releases lower levels of carbon emissions when burned. However, there are some concerns about the trend towards using greater amounts of natural gas. For one, the production and transportation of natural gas can sometimes release the greenhouse gas methane. Its climate warming impact is more than 80 times greater than that of carbon dioxide, according to an article by researchers Anthony J. Marchese and Daniel Zimmerle from Colorado State University. Their team’s research, along with others, suggests that current EPA estimates of methane emissions coming from oil and gas operations are too low.
Natural gas leaks can contain 85–95% methane, along with other hydrocarbons. While methane release brings up concerns about climate change, the hydrocarbons present in natural gas pose some health concerns and can degrade air quality.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Unconventional gas development can affect local and regional air quality. Some areas where drilling occurs have experienced increases in concentrations of hazardous air pollutants. […] Exposure to elevated levels of these air pollutants can lead to adverse health outcomes, including respiratory symptoms, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. One recent study found that residents living less than half a mile from unconventional gas well sites were at greater risk of health effects from air pollution from natural gas development than those living farther from the well sites.” (www.ucsusa.org)
Back in 2013, the research team from Colorado State University used an infrared camera to locate a methane leak at a natural gas gathering compressor station that was otherwise invisible. After the operator was made aware of the problem, he was able to fix it, resulting in a decline of the facility’s leak rate from 9.8% to 0.7%.
Unfortunately, infrared cameras (like the one mentioned above) that can be used to find methane leaks are prohibitively expensive for widespread use among natural gas workers. However, last year an international energy company called Statoil began field testing of an innovative and low-cost methane leak detection technology involving lasers that was developed by Quanta3, a Colorado-based startup.
Natural gas may soon take up an even larger percentage of electricity generation in the US. While this demonstrates progress towards using more climate-friendly renewable energy, it comes with some risks that can’t be ignored—climate warming, air pollution, and public health concerns.
In your opinion, how significant are the risks of methane emissions for the energy industry? What impacts might this have on the growth of renewable energy?