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MIT Report Finds Natural Gas Has Significant Potential

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  • MIT Report Finds Natural Gas Has Significant Potential

    Natural gas will play a leading role in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions over the next several decades, largely by replacing older, inefficient coal plants with highly efficient combined-cycle gas generation, according to a major new interim report out from MIT.

    In the transportation sector, the study found a somewhat smaller role for natural gas. The use of compressed or liquefied natural gas as a fuel for vehicles could help to displace oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but to a limited extent because of the high cost of converting vehicles to use these fuels. By contrast, making methanol, a liquid fuel, out of natural gas requires much less up-front conversion cost and could have an impact on oil usage and thus improve energy security, but would not reduce greenhouse gases.

    The two-year study, managed by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), examined the scale of US natural gas reserves and the potential of this fuel to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Based on the work of the multidisciplinary team, with advice from a board of 16 leaders from industry, government and environmental groups, the report examines the future of natural gas through 2050 from the perspectives of technology, economics, politics, national security and the environment.

    The Future of Natural Gas is the third in a series of MIT multidisciplinary reports examining the role of various energy sources that may be important for meeting future demand under carbon dioxide emissions constraints. The first two reports dealt with nuclear power (2003) and coal (2007).

    A study of natural gas is more complex because gas is a major fuel for multiple end uses—electricity, industry, heating—and is increasingly discussed as a potential pathway to reduced oil dependence for transportation, the study team noted. The interim report just published is intended to contribute to the energy, security and climate debate. A full report with additional analysis addressing a broader set of issues will follow later this year.
    The report includes a set of specific proposals for legislative and regulatory policies, as well as recommendations for actions that the energy industry can pursue on its own, to maximize the fuel’s impact on mitigating greenhouse gas. The study also examined ways to control the environmental impacts that could result from a significant expansion in the production and use of natural gas—especially in electric power production.

    In the very long run, very tight carbon constraints will likely phase out natural gas power generation in favor of zero-carbon or extremely low-carbon energy sources such as renewables, nuclear power or natural gas and coal with carbon capture and storage. For the next several decades, however, natural gas will play a crucial role in enabling very substantial reductions in carbon emissions.

    —MITEI Director Ernest J. Moniz
    Two major factors that can make a significant difference in the near term in reducing carbon emissions are using less energy and using gas instead of coal—especially by replacing the oldest, least-efficient coal plants with the most-efficient modern combined-cycle gas plants, said Moniz, who chaired the study, along with co-chairs Henry Jacoby, Professor of Management, and Tony Meggs, MITEI Visiting Engineer. Professor Jacoby is co-director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

    The study found that there are significant global supplies of conventional gas. How much of this gas gets produced and used, and the extent of its impact on greenhouse gas reductions, depends critically on some key political and regulatory decisions.

    In the United States, for example, there is a substantial amount of low-hanging fruit available by displacing inefficient power generation with more efficient, lower CO2 emitting gas plants.

    That kind of substitution alone reduces those carbon emissions by a factor of three. It does however raise complicated regulatory and political issues that will have to be resolved to take advantage of this potential.

    —Ernest Moniz

    While the new report emphasized the great potential for natural gas as a transitional fuel to help curb greenhouse gases and dependence on oil, it also stresses that it is important as a matter of national policy not to favor any one fuel or energy source in a way that puts others at a disadvantage. The most useful policies, the authors suggested, are ones that produce a truly “level playing field” for all forms of energy supply and for demand reduction, and thus let the marketplace, and the ingenuity of the nation’s researchers, determine the best options.

    Illustrating the role of natural gas as a bridge to a low carbon future, the study’s authors stressed that it would be a mistake to let natural gas crowd out research on other low- or no-carbon energy sources, but it would also be a mistake to let investments in such alternatives crowd out the expansion of natural gas resources in the near term, particularly for the purposes of CO2 emissions mitigation.

    The study received support from the American Clean Skies Foundation, Hess Corporation, Agencia Nacional de Hidrocarburos of Colombia, and the Energy Futures Coalition and the MIT Energy Initiative. The report issued this week is a preliminary overview of a more detailed report that will be released later this year.
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