Gas in U.S. Powerplants Not the Problem

Have you noticed the increasing commentary, claiming natural gas in U.S. powerplants is a climate change problem that must be combatted? My reaction is, oh, come on.

One can respond, firstly, that the substitution of natural gas plants for coal plants has produced enormous reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Or one can respond, secondarily, that the flexibility of natural gas plants is making it feasible to rapidly expand zero-emission wind and solar.

Gas substitutes for coal. Not wind and solar. More on this dynamic next week.

Or one can respond, thirdly, that the growth in natural gas plants has really reduced the carbon intensity of U.S. power generation, to 1.165 tons per megawatt-hour. (Latest International Energy Agency data, for 2016.)  

To put this number in perspective, the carbon intensity of China power generation is significantly greater, by 31 percent, at 1.531 tons per megawatt-hour. India is even greater, by 47 percent, at 1.708 tons per megawatt-hour. Russia is at 1.484 and Germany is at 1.277.

Countries like Canada with a lot of zero-emission hydro and France with a lot of zero-emission nuclear have low carbon intensity.

Or one can respond, fourthly, that natural gas in U.S. powerplants is a very small percentage of global emissions, even with the economy’s size and gas growth.

All of the nation’s natural gas plants combined emitted just 10.6 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from energy consumption in 2016.

In comparison, cars that burn motor gasoline emitted twice that amount, equal to 21.3 percent of U.S. emissions. And trucks that burn diesel emit nearly as much, equal to 8.3 percent of U.S. emissions.

Then take the comparison internationally. The U.S. accounts for about 15 percent of global emissions from energy consumption (a little over half of China’s percent.) Since our natural gas plants are 10.6 percent of this amount, this means our gas plants are about 1.6 percent of global emissions. That’s equivalent — in fractions — to one in sixty-three.

Sure, every ton of emissions counts. But the overall level and increase in global emissions are being driven by other sources — particularly, coal plants in Asia and oil-burning cars and trucks worldwide — not U.S. gas plants.