Can Natural Gas Replace Coal?

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The discovery of a gigantic natural gas deposit under the eastern United States has energy watchers discussing what it means for the power mix. Technology Review (Nov.-Dec. 2009) reports that the gas-rich Marcellus shale layer could supply enough natural gas for the country for 90 years at current consumption rates, or 50 years even if we used it to totally replace coal. That’s welcome news for the green movement, given that natural gas burns cleaner, producing less carbon dioxide.

Kicking our coal habit won’t be easy, of course. The lumpy black stuff is cheaper than natural gas, making it more attractive to power producers. Detroit still isn’t making cars and trucks that run on natural gas and, even if they did, there’s no refueling infrastructure in place. Finally, federal energy policy, which erroneously considers natural gas a “declining resource,” offers few incentives to increase use of the fuel.

The ground is shifting, though. As Congress debates new energy policies, there will no doubt be conversations about a cap and trade on carbon emissions that would drive utilities toward natural gas, as well as requirements that it be part of a utility’s energy mix. “I don’t think natural gas is an alternative to renewables,” Stanford geophysics professor Mark Zoback tells Technology Review, “but I do think it is by far the best fuel to use as we transition away from fossil fuels.”

The United States should take a cue from Asia-Pacific countries, where natural-gas vehicles are prevalent. Many of them have already been converted from gasoline, and Technology Review reports that the Colorado-based nonprofit Envirofit has developed a fuel-injection kit that increases efficiency and decreases emissions. Owners can buy the $300 setup with microloans, and by saving fuel it pays for itself in six months.