Energy Excursions

Could Natural Gas Fill the Gap?

Introduction to Natural Gas 

Natural gas is a non-renewable fossil fuel we extract from deep beneath the ground, for the purpose of providing much of the United States’ energy and electricity generation. While natural gas has been extracted and produced for centuries now, the production of natural gas surged due to the Shale Revolution. The Shale Revolution, taking off in the early 2000’s, marked a time where technological advancements led to the application of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to shale basins, featuring large quantities of shale gas, one of the largest sources of natural gas today. Hydraulic fracturing is the process of creating artificial fractures within low permeable reservoirs, such as shale, to allow hydrocarbons to flow to the wellbore. The marriage of horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing allowed access to more of the target rock layer per well, and thus made production of natural gas from these artificially fractured shales an economic endeavor.

Aside from the Shale Revolution creating a plentiful supply of natural gas, there are other incentives for its use, for example, it is less carbon intensive than other traditional fossil fuels like coal. In the United States alone, we have seen a dramatic shift from coal-fired power plants to natural gas plants, given burning natural gas to generate electricity is much more efficient and produces less carbon dioxide than the latter. However, that is not to say that natural gas is not a culprit: gas flaring and fugitive emissions have most certainly contributed to climate change as well. 

Nevertheless, we rely on natural gas extensively, which will likely continue far into the future, especially as we continue to transition away from emissions-intensive energy resources. If we were to make a fast-paced transition to an all-electric world, mostly eliminating gasoline and diesel, natural gas may be a solution to satisfying demand, enabling a swift change in overall supply.1Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, January 14). Natural gas. Wipedia. Retrieved January 23, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_gas 

Natural Gas Filling the Power Gap 

Let’s begin by examining the capability of natural gas to fill the power gap in an all-electric transportation scenario for the United States. First, let’s look at the table once more. 

2020 Energy Consumption (Quads) Compared to a Potential 2040 Scenario2 https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/us-energy-facts/, Energy Information Agency (EIA). U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, Table 1.3 and 10.1, April 2021, preliminary data. Accessed: 11/22/2021.

Fuel 2020*  2040 Change
Petroleum  32.2 10.3 -21.9 
Natural Gas  31.5 34.5 3
Coal  9.2 9.2 0
Nuclear  8.2 8.2 0
Hydro-electric  2.5 2.5 0
Renewables 9.1 13.6 4.5
Total  92.7** 78.3 -14.4

U.S. energy consumption by source in 2020, with a potential scenario for 2040. Energy measured in quadrillion BTUs (quads). *Actual numbers reported by EIA may differ between publications as reports of actual consumption are updated. For this study please refer to the April 2021 EIA data. ** Sum of components on EIA publications may vary slightly due to independent rounding.  

If natural gas were to fill the gap, how much energy would it need to provide, measured in quads? 

48.9 quads

Correct. 

Natural gas is already projected to provide 34.5 quads of energy in 2040 and filling the gap of 14.4 quads means natural gas must provide a total of 48.9 quads of energy. 

34.5 quads

Incorrect. 

14.4 quads

Incorrect. 

Infrastructure Considerations

If we were to focus on using natural gas to fill the power gap, we must also consider moving that natural gas from source to power generation sites through pipelines. Let’s look at what infrastructure changes the increase you calculated in natural gas above might require. 

In the natural gas industry we commonly use units of standard cubic feet (scf)often to represent pipeline capacity used to carry natural gas from the source to the powerplant. A single scf is one cubic foot of gas at standard temperature and pressure. 

Let’s calculate some numbers to get a grasp of how much additional infrastructure we would need to fill the gap with natural gas (14.4 quads). 

For conversion, we will use:

996 scf = 1 MMBTU

109 MMBTU = 1 quad

14.4 quads   x   996 scf/MMBTU      x      109 MMBTU/quad   ~   14,400,000,000,000 scf

Natural gas demand in 2040 to fill the power gap = 14,400,000,000,000 standard cubic feet 

We can see that  using 14.4 quads of natural gas to fill the gap equates to moving about an additional 14.4 Tcf (trillion scf) of natural gas around the country. 

The U.S. natural gas pipeline network is a highly integrated network that moves natural gas throughout the continental United States. The pipeline network has about 3 million miles of mainline and other pipelines that link natural gas production areas and storage facilities with consumers. In 2020, this natural gas transportation network delivered about 27.7 Tcf of natural gas to about 77.3 million customers.3 U.S. Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). U.S. Energy Information Administration independent statistics and analysis. Natural gas explained. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved January 23, 2022, from https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/natural-gas-pipelines.php 

Therefore, if natural gas were to fill the gap (14.4 Tcf), pipeline capacity (the volume of natural gas that could flow through the pipelines) must increase by ~50%. About half of the existing mainline natural gas transmission network and a large portion of the local distribution network were installed in the 1950s and 1960s because consumer demand for natural gas more than doubled following World War II. 

Map of U.S. interstate and intrastate natural gas pipelines4 U.S. Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). U.S. Energy Information Administration independent statistics and analysis. Natural gas explained. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved January 23, 2022, from https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/natural-gas-pipelines.php

If creating half of our current pipeline infrastructure took several decades, we can imagine that an increase of ~50% would be a serious infrastructure project. What kind of strain would this kind of addition put on the industry? On the country?  

Pipeline Projects

The timeline for constructing pipelines is not just the period of time involved in building the actual pipeline and related facilities—there are many years of effort involved within the business, regulatory, environmental and public arenas to get a pipeline project started and completed. Let’s examine some numbers to reflect the state of affairs in the third quarter of 2021 related to pipeline construction. 

Pipeline projects take time

The Middlesex Extension Project in New Jersey entered service in September of 2021. This project plans to deliver an amount of natural gas equivalent to ~ .7% (264 MMcf/d) of our proposed energy gap annually to a power plant. This project took a full two years to complete from the time the application for construction was made to the federal government.

Not all natural gas pipelines serve U.S. consumers

Over 4 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) of new natural gas pipeline capacity entered service in the third quarter of 2021, primarily supplying Gulf Coast and Northeast demand markets. Three projects in the Gulf Coast, including the Whistler Pipeline in the Permian Basin of Texas (shown below), added 3.6 Bcf/d of that additional pipeline capacity. The issue for us as we explore how to fill our proposed energy gap with natural gas is that these projects connect U.S. natural gas production to growing U.S. export markets (Mexico and LNG export terminals along the coast), not our national consumption needs. 

Ninety percent of the pipeline capacity that entered service in the third quarter of 2021 serves the growing U.S. export market rather than U.S. consumers.5U.S. Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). U.S. Energy Information Administration independent statistics and analysis. New natural gas pipeline capacity expands access to export and Northeast markets. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved January 23, 2022, from https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=50376

Public Opposition to Pipelines

There is more and more interest by the public in pipeline construction. Many environmental groups work closely with the public on advocacy against the construction of certain pipelines. For our planned projection of energy consumption involving new pipeline development, the public’s growing predisposition against any pipeline development is a clear challenge. 

Some pipeline projects never reach completion

In September of 2021 the PennEast Pipeline project was shut down due to the company’s assessment that further development of the project was no longer supported. The project was begun in 2014 and was to supply 1.3 bcf of natural gas per day via a 120-mile pipeline in eastern Pennsylvania to local businesses and families, as well as to electric generation companies. That pipeline, that is not going to be constructed, would have supplied 3.3% (.48 Tcf) of the natural gas we are looking at to fill the energy gapa pipeline project that after 7 years of work was cancelled. These challenges are what face us when we look to increasing natural gas supply for electric generation for an all-electric vehicle fleet in the United States.6U.S. Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). U.S. Energy Information Administration independent statistics and analysis. New natural gas pipeline capacity expands access to export and Northeast markets. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved January 23, 2022, from https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=503767Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. (2022, January). Information Sheet, PennEast Pipeline Company, LLC. – PennEast Pipeline. Retrieved January 23, 2022, from  https://files.dep.state.pa.us/ProgramIntegration/PA%20Pipeline%20Portal/PennEast/Info-Sheet-PennEast_Pipeline-January_2022.pdf

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