MIT releases report on natural gas

by Antonio Pasolini on June 28, 2010

According to a new MIT report, 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. That’s the conclusion reached by a comprehensive study of the future of natural gas conducted by an MIT study group comprised of 30 MIT faculty members, researchers, and graduate students. The findings, summarized in an 83-page report, were presented to lawmakers and senior administration officials this week in Washington.

The two-year study, managed by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), examined the scale of U.S. 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 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.

“Much has been said about natural gas as a bridge to a low-carbon future, with little underlying analysis to back up this contention. The analysis in this study provides the confirmation — natural gas truly is a bridge to a low-carbon future,” said MITEI Director Ernest J. Moniz in introducing the report.

Moniz further noted, “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.”

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,” Moniz said, “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.”

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.

“In a carbon-constrained world, natural gas will become a larger part of the energy mix,” Moniz said. But in the longer term, it will be necessary to shift to “essentially zero-carbon” sources so “we better not get mesmerized by gas either. We need to do the hard work of getting those alternative technologies ready to take over.”

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Narasimhan Santhanam July 10, 2010 at 11:08 am

This is indeed a much read PDF…with natural gas being touted as the fuel of this century pretty much as oil was that of the last, we need to know more about this fuel, fast.

NG is of course not be renewable, but it just could be the transitional fuel that the world has been looking for while we migrate to renewables…NG gives more bang for the buck when used in transport vehicles, and is a much cleaner fuel than coal when used for generating power

Narasimhan Santhanam

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