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Fossil fuels? In a world of renewables, they’re a real gas


A 2015 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that electric vehicles (EVs) produce half the carbon dioxide per mile (154 grams) that gasoline-powered cars do (381 grams), based on a “cradle-to-grave” analysis covering a vehicle’s entire lifetime.

In 2018, a McKinsey report concluded that electric vehicles are unlikely to create a power-demand crisis, but could reshape the load curve. This report drew projections from Germany, where power demand – even with the steady mainstreaming of EVs – would only increase by 5 percent by 2050.

Meanwhile, renewables like solar, wind, biomass and geothermal have made inroads into commercial markets for production of power and transportation fuels that were primarily served by fossil fuels. So, additional power for EVs needs could be met with renewable electricity.

This is all good news for EVs, as we balance carbon-dioxide emissions and strive to meet the constraints of a “two-degree scenario.”

So, are we at crossroads? Are we heading toward the end of fossil fuels? These are some of the questions we seek to answer at the Institute of Gas Innovation and Technology (I-GIT), which was established at the AERTC in early 2018.

An I-GIT analysis shows that no, fossil fuels have not necessarily outlived their usefulness. In particular, natural gas will continue to play a major role in the energy mix for both the power and transportation sectors as markets change with technological advances in renewables.

Our analysis is based on four factors:

1) Due to its high hydrogen content (hydrogen/carbon ratio of 4/1), natural gas is inherently low in carbon-dioxide emissions. In fact, natural gas contains the equivalent of 25 percent (by weight) hydrogen, helping the world move to “hydrogen economy,” the ultimate goal.

2) Projected ample proven extractable gas reserves are at 60 years, at the present annual global consumption rate of 3.7 trillion cubic meters – supplemented mostly by unconventional gas (shale, coal-bed methane and tight gas).

3) Gas prices in the United States are stable and low (Henry Hub price at below $4 MMBtu).

4) Major renewable natural-gas recovery initiatives are being led by California, where the economically recoverable RNG potential is pegged at 68 billion cubic feet per year – allowing major carbon-dioxideemission reductions at California’s many dairies and putting RNG on par with other renewables, with added health benefits due to reduced waste.

Meanwhile, there is another developing concept of storing intermittent electricity produced from renewables as “renewable gas” (hydrogen or RNG), an option formally known as power-to-gas, or P2G. This concept could deliver storage potential two orders of magnitude higher than batteries, and would ensure a sustainable future for gas in coming decades.

Stable and low gas prices, programs designed to capture RNG from waste (with added health benefits), stored gas to supplement power production as needed – it appears at least one fossil fuel has a bright future as we address climate change in the 21st century.

I-GIT, set up in an academic environment, is timely in its efforts to study natural-gas issues and help accelerate advanced technology developments in the energy sector, specifically those that reduce carbon footprints. This approach will maintain a better standard of living for the more than 9 billion people projected to inhabit planet Earth by 2050.