Clean-burning, economical and easy to transport by pipeline or tanker, natural gas is an ideal partner for renewables and the most effective way to meet today’s energy needs while keeping the planet healthy.
"At Total, we're convinced that natural gas will be the second fossil energy source in 20 years," says Gérard Moutet, former Vice President Climate–Energy at Total. At a time when the world is turning to renewables, gas-fired power plants are an ideal complement to facilities that generate electricity from these sources. Neither wind, solar nor biomass are able to ensure an uninterrupted supply of power. On days when there is little wind or sun, the amount of electricity produced is negligible, and on days when they are plentiful, the surplus energy can't be stored with today's technology. How then do you respond to peak demand? The answer, say industry experts, including the International Energy Agency (IEA), is gas-fired power plants.
Gas, the fastest-growing fossil fuel
To understand why, all you need to do is look at the IEA's forecasts. According to the agency, natural gas is set to be the fastest-growing fossil fuel, its share of the global energy mix rising from 21% to 24% by 2040, while that of coal and oil recedes.
Global natural gas consumption is already increasing at an annual rate of 2.4% and is expected to pick up pace in the coming years. At the same time, global primary energy demand is projected to rise by 32% between 2013 and 2040.
The fact is that gas-fired power plants offer a number of advantages, including rapid start-up. A gas turbine can achieve full power in less than ten minutes, whereas a fuel oil or coal-fired plant takes about two hours. Furthermore, natural gas-fired stations are more efficient and less polluting, releasing one-and-a-half to two times less CO2. This last point is of major significance, especially in countries that need to address the environmental impact of rapid economic development. In certain regions of China, for instance, particularly near Beijing, coal-fired power plants are being replaced with gas-fired stations in order to reduce pollution.
New uses spur development
New natural gas uses are being developed for both land and sea. It's a trend that's here to stay. Today there are over 22 million natural gas vehicles (NGV) worldwide. In France, the Paris public transit authority (RATP) plans to convert 900 vehicles to natural gas by 2025. Natural gas fuel releases 25 % less carbon emissions than a gasoline engine and 10% less than a diesel engine. In addition, it doesn't emit particles. However, an NGV costs 30% more than a conventional vehicle, and the network of fueling stations in Europe is sparse.
The use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) as marine fuel is also gaining momentum. Ship owners operating in the English Channel, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea must now comply with SECA (sulfur emission control areas) regulations limiting the sulfur content of fuel to 0.1%. In these same areas, the ceiling on nitrogen oxide emissions is currently set at 14.4g/kWh, a level that will be lowered to 3.4g/kWh by 2016. LNG cuts nitrogen oxide and greenhouse gas emissions by 80% and 20%, respectively, and doesn't produce sulfur. The development of LNG as marine fuel will take time however, since it depends on the renewal of merchant fleets.
Natural gas shunned in Europe
Environmental benefits, coupled with the emergence of new uses, are pushing natural gas to the forefront. The only region in the world where this isn’t really happening is Europe. While global consumption of natural gas is expected to keep growing at an average annual rate of around 2%, demande in Europe fell by 13.5% in 2014 before edging up by a slight 4.3% in 2015. Laurent Vivier, President Gas, is calling for a new regulatory framework to promote natural gas, which in addition to being more environmentally friendly, is the most cost-effective solution for energy stakeholders and government authorities. It's one of the conditions if Europe is to achieve its 2030 target for reducing carbon emissions. In July 2014, the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced the creation of a new European Energy Union. Industry players are hoping that new economic policy instruments—fiscal, such as the carbon tax, or regulatory—will change the game. The only country to have taken concrete steps is the United Kingdom, which has limited carbon emissions from new power plants to 450 grams per kilowatt hour.
Coal's share in global energy mix is set to decline
Cheap and easily accessible, coal provides 30% of global primary energy needs, making it the second source of primary energy before gas. It is the largest source of energy for the generation of electricity. Coal is an abundant resource, with only 22% of all reserves expected to have been used in 2030. The problem with coal is that it produces large amounts of carbon dioxide and contributes substantially to global warming.
China alone accounts for 50% of global coal consumption. However, the country is now taking steps to improve its air quality and is beginning to shift to other energy sources, such as natural gas. In the United States, the development of shale gas has led to a sharp decline in coal-fired electricity generation.
The benefits of natural gas are many. The nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions from its combustion are three times less compared to coal and oil, and it produces no sulfur dioxide (SO2). Based on these different factors, the share of natural gas is expected to grow from 21% to 24% of the global energy mix by 2040, according to International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates.