Friday, April 5, 2013

Love It Or Hate It, The Facts About How We All Use Natural Gas

Natural gas in the USA is as bountiful as it is controversial. Some love it, while others hate it.  Yet, all of us use it in one way or another to get through every single day and night. Despite the controversy, gas supplies about 26% of America's total energy, ranking behind only oil in meeting America's energy needs.

By comparison coal provides 19% of our total energy and ranks third in meeting our energy needs. Renewable energy in all its forms, including hydro and biofuels, ranks fourth and nuclear power fifth.

Simply put, natural gas heats buildings, feeds industrial processes, and fuels power plants to make electricity.
See page 31.

The biggest portion of natural gas supply--38%--is used to heat buildings.  In fact, 51% of America's homes rely on natural gas to stay warm during winter. And when gas is shut-off to the poor, that loss of gas service creates substantial health and safety risks, since people who lose gas service resort to dangerous substitutes that have caused fires and deaths, especially among young children.

The second biggest use of gas is to fuel power plants to generate electricity, and about 33% of all gas is combusted for this purpose. The share of electricity coming from natural gas-fired power plants has been steadily increasing since 1990 but sharply increased during 2012, when low-priced gas displaced large amounts of coal-fired power. Indeed, last year natural gas power plants provided 30% of the nation's electricity, while coal plants' market share fell to 37% from levels as high as 50% about a decade ago.

With major assists from more renewable energy and energy efficiency, the increase in gas-fired electric generation is the single biggest reason why America's energy related carbon emissions have substantially declined since 2007.  Rising gas generation that displaced coal is also slashing the amount of mercury and other toxic air pollution as well as sulfur dioxide emissions in our air. Yet, the recent run-up in natural gas prices could well produce a drop in the electricity market share of natural gas during 2013, as coal may reclaim some of its lost market share this year.

The last major use of natural gas is to in industrial processes that consume 29% of natural gas.  Natural gas is a primary feedstock for many products and so the boom in shale gas has increased expectations for major new investment in manufacturing.

Starkly absent from the major uses of gas is transportation.  Just 0.2% of all gas is used for transportation in the USA, while globally 3.2% of gas is already powering vehicles.

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