Recent years have seen much debate around whether natural gas has a role to play in the clean energy transition.
Although it is a fossil fuel, natural gas emits approximately half of the carbon dioxide of coal when burned, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). This has led some to argue for its use as a cleaner alternative to coal as we transition to zero-emissions renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydropower.
Is Natural Gas Sustainable? The Wider Context
The argument for natural gas makes the most sense when considering sustainable development in Africa, where more than 600 million people, roughly half the continent’s population, lack electricity. Countries throughout Africa are building renewable energy capacity, but because of the sheer scale of the challenge, some believe meeting the continent’s rising energy needs will require natural gas.
In a country like the United States, it has become more difficult to make the “transition fuel” case because of the improved reliability and falling cost of renewables. Indeed, some research argues that it is now generally cheaper to build and use renewables in the US than to build new natural gas plants.
While natural gas emits fewer greenhouse gases than coal, it does come with serious environmental implications. Extracting natural gas from wells and transporting it through pipelines results in methane leaks. Methane is 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over a 100-year period, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. At the same time, hydraulic fracturing, the method used to extract natural gas, can both contaminate and strain local water supplies.
The Future of Natural Gas
The EIA now expects renewables to overtake natural gas in the US electricity mix. In its Annual Energy Outlook 2020, the agency forecasts that the share of the country’s electricity generated by renewables will double by 2050, from 19% to 38%, while natural gas will stay flat, dipping slightly from 37% to 36%.
American utilities that use natural gas to generate electricity or provide heat and hot water continue to build new infrastructure, largely because business models and regulatory structures across the country reward them for doing so. However, the regulatory environment has begun to change, and this buildup could result in stranded assets as increasing numbers of cities and states phase out natural gas.
Ultimately, while the use of natural gas will not disappear any time soon, its role as a “sustainable” energy source seems fairly limited.