It was obviously coming. Now it is truly here: natural gas is the new king of the hill — the leading fuel used to generate electricity. That’s the findings of the US Energy Information Administration, which also says that coal will dip to 30 percent while renewables will be 15 percent.
All this is the manifestation of a nation that has placed a premium on fuels that release the least amount of carbon emissions. It’s also the result of new drilling techniques that are able to ply loose the shale gas that is embedded in rocks a mile beneath the earth’s surface — a process that has unshackled a plethora of unconventional fuel and made it as cheap as coal, at $2.59 per million Btus. Those market forces in combination with regulations that curb coal use have created the new phenomenon.
“Natural gas had long been the second-most prevalent fuel for electricity generation behind coal,” says the energy agency’s analysis. “Natural gas-fired generation first surpassed coal generation on a monthly basis in April 2015. Natural gas-fired generation has surpassed coal-fired generation in most months since then and is expected to continue to exceed coal generation through the remainder of the year, ultimately providing 34% of the United States’s electricity generated this year.”
Natural gas, it says, is 4 percent greater than it was a year ago. Come 2022, the fuel will really get its legs and keep the lion share’s of the electric generation mix through 2040. Nuclear energy, meanwhile, will be 19 percent, which is slight drop from previous years; it includes the retirement of recent nuclear plants and specifically Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon.
A common question that this reporter often receives is at what point will the environmental movement turn its full attention to natural gas and away from coal? Many in the green movement have already targeted natural gas and especially its drilling techniques, called fracking to retrieve shale gas. They are concerned that it taints the drinking water. They are also concerned about excessive methane releases, which are more potent than carbon dioxide.
But the Obama administration has tried to stake the middle ground — a position that addresses both concerns over drinking water and excessive methane releases. It has thus recommended certain federal oversights to instill public insight. While the natural gas industry says that such rules are overreach, the White House sees them as necessary to keep natural gas in the hunt.
If the industry can quell public concerns, natural gas will have a key position for three-and-a-half decades. Is that the “bridge” until green energy can take its place? Environmentalists would say that it is too long, given the pressing needs to address climate change. The gas movement, though, will argue that it is replacing coal and that it is doing so in a cost effective and safe manner.