Natural gas is used in many applications today, from cooking and residential heating in plastics manufacturing, energy generation and as fuel for low-carbon vehicles.
What is Natural Gas?
Being a fossil fuel, the extraction and use of natural gas on our planet produces greenhouse gas emissions, which pollutes the atmosphere and changes the weather conditions.
Mankind needs to replace the dirty fossil fuels use today on a mass scale for energy production (coal and oil) with alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass, tidal, and wave energy in order to clean the atmosphere.
However, most of these renewable energy sources are intermittent, which means that we can’t rely only on them to power the civilization. To rely only on renewable energy, the energy storage systems need to evolve and our generation capacity for renewable energy also needs to significantly grow.
This way, the first step towards a society that uses only renewable energy, will be made using low-carbon energy sources such as natural gas combined with renewables.
Uses of Natural Gas
Being some of the cleanest fossil fuels (with the lowest emissions) available on the planet, natural gas is mainly used today for electricity generation and in the industrial sector.
Natural gas is also used for cooking and residential heating, and in the transportation sector is used to power vehicles due to the fact that this fuel is more affordable compared to gasoline and diesel, and releases a lower amount of emissions.
1. Using Natural Gas in the Energy Sector
The use of coal for energy generation is slowly replaced with the use of natural gas, even if coal is some of the cheapest sources of power and heat available on the planet (the cheapest in this case also means the dirtiest).
In 2018, in terms of U.S. electricity generation by source, natural gas accounted for 35%, while coal accounted for only 27%.
If we compare the 2018 data with the 2014 data (coal 39%, and natural gas 27%), we realize that coal loses ground, while natural gas becomes the main source of electricity in the country.
How is natural gas used to generate electricity?
Gas-Fired Power Plants
A gas-fired power plant, uses natural gas as fuel to heat water, and the steam resulted is used to spin a turbine that will rotate a generator to produce electricity.
When we burn natural gas (which is mostly methane), we get the following:
CH4 + O2 = CO2 + H2O and a lot of energy.
H2O (water vapor) and CO2 (carbon dioxide) are both greenhouse gases that are warming the atmosphere.
However, the amount of harmful emissions produced while burning natural gas is way lower than the amount of harmful emissions released while burning coal or oil.
The following table shows how many pounds of CO2 are released per million BTUs (British thermal units) when burning different fuels.
Giving the fact that a house of about 1,500 square feet will consume about 50 million BTUs for heating over a period of one year, you can now imagine how much CO2 are you releasing into the atmosphere when using one of the above fuels to heat your home.
However, instead of using coal or oil for electricity generation, we rather use a low-carbon energy source such as natural gas, at least until mankind will fully control the nuclear fusion reaction or the generation capacity of renewable energy will meet the energy demand of the planet.
2. Natural Gas Uses in the Industrial Sector
In the industrial sector, natural gas is used as raw material (feedstock) for process heating to produce chemicals, fertilizers, and hydrogen.
Being an organic material, natural gas is also used to manufacture antifreeze, plastics, pharmaceuticals and different fabrics.
In 2018, the use of natural gas for process heating in the industrial sector accounted for about 34% in the United States.
3. Residential Heating and Cooking
Natural gas is also used to heat buildings and water, but also as fuel for cooking and as a heat source when drying clothes.
Natural is used for residential heating only in areas where the natural gas grid is available.
In countries where this resource is not available, people are using wood or other fossil fuel (coal, heating oil, etc.) to heat their homes, and this way they release a large amount of emissions.
Using propane for residential heating can be a food option (if natural gas is not available), but only if you find propane at an affordable price.
4. Natural Gas Uses in the Commercial Sector
Since the creation of very large stores, natural gas has become the source of heat for buildings and water, to operate refrigeration and cooling equipment, for cooking, dry clothes, and also for outdoor lighting.
Besides of being used for heat production, natural gas is also used to produce energy for local units.
5. Natural Gas Uses in the Transportation Sector
Natural is used as fuel to operate large compressors that are moving natural gas through pipelines, and also as fuel for vehicles.
I’m sure that you have already seen city buses powered by natural gas in towns where the local authorities are trying to lower the emissions released by the public transportation sector.
City Buses Powered by Natural Gas
Nowadays, we can see city buses powered only by electricity, which are truly green (zero emissions).
Natural gas is a cheap fuel (cheaper than gasoline and diesel) and this is the reason why many car owners have modified their vehicles to run on natural gas instead of gasoline.
Others are using “hybrid” vehicles that work with both natural gas and gasoline.
In this case, natural gas is only used to get a longer range of the vehicle at an affordable price with lowered emissions.
However, even if natural gas is cleaner than other fuels used to power vehicles (gasoline and diesel), the true reason of using this gas to power a car, is mainly financial.
A vehicle burning natural gas instead of gasoline or diesel, will still pollute the environment, even if the owner pays less for the fuel.
To clean the atmosphere, we need to use electric vehicles not low-carbon vehicles.
However, for energy generation, natural gas could be a solution to replace coal, wood or other fossil fuel in the near future, or at least until the renewable energy generation capacity of the planet will be developed enough to meet the energy demand of the planet.