The theme for climate change is urgency. Right now, world leaders are in the UK for the COP26 Climate Summit, and the general message is that the time for talk is over.
Despite the Paris Agreement signed by many countries in 2015, some at the COP26 have expressed concern that the pace of change to carbon neutral economies is too slow, or that signatories of the agreement aren’t pushing progress as quickly as required.
World leaders will be pressured to switch to cleaner fuels, stop burning fossil fuels altogether, and share resources to help poorer countries decarbonize and deal with extreme weather.
The question is, what will the results of this summit mean for individual industries in the U.S. that rely heavily on burning coal?
Natural gas as a bridge fuel to cleaner energy
The ultimate goal of many countries and individual industries is, eventually, to be carbon neutral. They would achieve this accomplishment by converting power generation to wind, solar, nuclear, recycled materials, and other renewable energy sources. The problem is that the energy output of those sources is not yet sufficient to handle the needs of all the industries that currently rely on coal burning.
One solution to this problem is natural gas. Although it is a fossil fuel, the carbon emissions of natural gas are 50%-60% less than coal when used for combustion. For this reason, advocates describe natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that will help industries move away from coal and eventually move away from fossil fuels completely.
How serious is natural gas?
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the use of coal for electricity generation in the United States fell by over half, from 50% to 23%. There were 103 coal fired power plants converted to natural gas fired plants between 2011 and 2019. As of June 2021, natural gas accounted for 38% of energy production in the United States.
Natural gas has taken on a massive role in various segments of the economy, as industries deal with increased pressure to meet their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Industries that are converting to natural gas
There are several industries making the switch to natural gas that have traditionally relied heavily on coal burning for their operations.
- Power generation industry – As noted above, natural gas has overtaken coal and become the largest fuel source for electricity generation in the U.S. There are two common methods for coal burning plants to make the transition to natural gas. The first and most popular approach is to convert the boiler of a coal fired steam plant to burn natural gas instead and then simply switch the fuel. The second approach is to replace the coal fired power plant with a new natural gas fired combined cycle plant. The latter approach has the added benefit of capturing the heat exhaust and returning it to the steam turbine to create additional energy.
- The steel industry – The most common type of steel manufacturing uses coking coal, a form of coal with a very high carbon footprint, and makes up 7% of CO2 emissions worldwide. Many steel production plants are changing the way they make steel in order to substitute natural gas for carbon intensive coal. Instead of blast furnaces, these plants use natural gas to produce direct-reduced iron, followed by an electric arc furnace to turn the iron into steel. This method produces only about half of the carbon emissions of coal burning steel plants.
- Manufacturing industry – Manufacturing facilities of all types use a process called cogeneration or combined heat and power (CHP) to provide electricity and heat more efficiently and to reduce fuel costs. CHP captures the heat created by electricity generation and puts it to further productive use. Cogeneration plants may burn coal, resulting in significant carbon emissions. These units can be converted from coal to natural gas in order to cut down on greenhouse gases while still reaping the benefits of combined heat and power. A DuPont manufacturing facility in Richmond, Virginia recently switched their cogeneration facility from coal to natural gas, and they now project that they will reduce their CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 metric tons.
Natural gas is an important first step
The move to reduce carbon emissions drastically requires a multi-faceted approach that takes into account the needs of different industries. The recent changes by power generators, steel producers, and manufacturers to natural gas shows that even some of the heaviest carbon producers understand the importance of making meaningful shifts for the greater good of the planet’s future.
Coupled with relying on renewable energy sources when possible, using recycled materials instead of new resources, and generally moving toward a more circular economy, natural gas has the potential to lower our carbon footprint significantly. Although many at COP26 will call for a complete move away from all fossil fuels, the urgency they demand will depend largely on the progress industries make in moving away from coal to natural gas as a stepping stone toward renewable energy.