Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are encouraging U.S. policymakers to consider the nation's growing supply of natural gas as a short-term substitute for aging coal-fired power plants.
In the results of a two-year study, released today, the researchers said electric utilities and other sectors of the American economy will use more gas through 2050. Under a scenario that envisions a federal policy aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, researchers found a substantial role for natural gas.
"Because national energy use is substantially reduced, the share represented by gas is projected to rise from about 20 percent of the current national total to around 40 percent in 2040," said the MIT researchers. When used to fire a power plant, gas emits about half of the carbon dioxide emissions as conventional coal plants.
The report asserts the impact of national policies that place an economic cost on greenhouse gas emissions would, first and foremost, be a reduction in energy use across the United States. It would flatten demand in the electricity sector.
The MIT team of researchers was led by Ernest Moniz, a physics professor and director of the MIT Energy Initiative. Moniz's name often floats around Washington when it comes time to choose another energy secretary. A major sponsor of the report is the American Clean Skies Foundation, a Washington think tank created and funded by the natural gas industry.
The report, titled "The Future of Natural Gas," acknowledges that U.S. energy and climate policy is in flux. For the most part, the MIT researchers accept the idea that the advancement of onshore gas drilling technology has set the stage for a gas boom in the United States. As such, the MIT researchers analyze increasing gas consumption under a number of different scenarios.
A cushion, but not a complete answer
Gas is an option for cutting power plant emissions and addressing global warming in the short term. But the researchers warned that the gas cushion shouldn't distract policymakers from addressing the need for nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology for coal-fired generation.
"Though gas frequently is touted as a 'bridge' to the future, continuing effort is needed to prepare for that future, lest the gift of greater domestic gas resources turn out to be a bridge with no landing point on the far bank," the report says. "Barriers to the expansion of nuclear power or coal and/or gas generation with CCS must be resolved over the next few decades so they are capable of expanding to replace natural gas in generation."
This emissions policy does relatively little to alter natural gas markets, the report finds. Gas production and demand grows slightly more slowly, cutting gas use and supply by a few trillion cubic feet in 2040 compared with a scenario that doesn't include a climate policy. Gas use and production begins to fall after 2040, driven by higher gas prices due in part to a rising price on carbon dioxide emissions.
"While gas is less carbon intensive than coal or oil, at the reduction level required by 2050, its [carbon] emissions are beginning to represent an emissions problem," the report explains. "However, even under the pressure of the assumed emissions policy, total gas use is projected to increase from 2005 to 2050 even for the low estimate of domestic gas resources."