Natural gas was used for street and building lighting in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. This was called “gaslight.” Today, better gas distribution has made it possible to use it for many different things in homes, businesses, factories, and power plants.
For example, the US used about 24 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2011. That’s 30 percent of the country’s total electricity use, and it’s the same as almost 190 billion gallons of gasoline. In 2012, the United States used about 26 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, primarily for electricity and industrial use.
Even though the quantity of natural gas made in the United States has grown a lot in the last decade, gas still outpaced production in 2012. Most of the rest comes from pipeline imports from Canada. A smaller amount of natural gas is brought in as liquefied gas by supertankers. A 50% rise in global natural gas consumption is expected between 2010 and 2035, with growth in Brazil and China driving consumption.
Electricity is a source of power
There is a lot of growth in natural gas used to make electricity today. Natural gas power plants usually produce gas turbines, like jet engines. They use the hot exhaust gasses from fuel combustion to produce electricity. Single-cycle gas turbines usually turn the heat energy from combustion into electricity at a rate of 35% to 40%.
People can make natural gas “combined-cycle” plants more efficient by 50 percent or more, but this isn’t always the case. Plants that use NGCC first use the combustion gasses to run a gas turbine. Then, hot exhaust from the gas turbine is used to boil water into steam and drive a steam turbine.
Gas-fired power plants were built quickly in the 1990s and early 2000s because of low natural gas prices. In 2003, natural gas overtook coal as the source of electricity used to make electricity in the United States. Wild gas-fired plants are now some of the cheapest power plants to build.
People used to think that it was more expensive to run them than to run coal-fired power plants because the fuel was better costly. Natural gas-fired plants are more flexible than coal-fired plants because they can be fired up and shut down very quickly. People used air conditioners all over the country during the hot summer months, so many natural gas plants were used to provide peaking capacity at these times.
This is how it worked: These natural gas “peaker” power plants were not used most of the year, while coal-fired power plants were used for “baseload.” However, since 2008, the price of natural gas in the United States has dropped a lot. Natural gas is now more common as a power source in many places.
A 2011 MIT study found that if more natural gas power plants were used to replace coal-fired power, the electric sector’s carbon emissions could be cut by 22% shortly. In 2001, natural gas made up only 17% of electricity. In 2012, it made up 30%.
Heating and making electricity
Residential and commercial use accounts for more than a third of the natural gas used in the United States. Gas is used in buildings to heat space and water and to cook. In 2013, about half of all US homes used natural gas to heat, and 70% of all new homes were built with gas heating. Home furnaces can be more efficient than 90% of the time.
Measures to make buildings more efficient are widely thought to be the most cost-effective way to cut down on the amount of natural gas we use. One study said that if people worked hard to make their homes more efficient through high-efficiency insulation, windows, furnaces, water heaters, and other things, they could keep 234 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the following 50 years.
Natural gas can also be used to make both heat and electricity at the same time, a process named “cogeneration” or “integrated heat and power” (CHP). Cogeneration systems are very efficient. They can use 75 to 80% of the energy in gas to do their job. “Trigeneration” systems, which make electricity, heat, and calm, can be even more efficient. If policies are put in place to cut carbon emissions, a 2009 UCS report says that CHP help could more than triple by 2030 if those policies are put in place.
For industrial and other things
Besides heating and powering factories, natural gas is also used to make plastics and chemicals and make plastics and chemicals used to make other plastics and chemicals. When high-temperature water vapor (steam) meets methane, it produces hydrogen gas (H2), used in many things. Today, hydrogen is mainly used to make ammonia for fertilizer, one of the natural gas’s most important industrial products. There is a lot of hydrogen that comes from natural gas. It can be used as fuel itself.
The best way to turn hydrogen into electricity is to use a fuel cell, which combines oxygen and hydrogen to create electricity, water, and warmness. Carbon dioxide is still released when converting natural gas to hydrogen. But the amount of CO2 emitted for each unit of electricity generated is much lower than for a combustion turbine.
CNG has been utilized as a transportation fuel, especially in public transportation. CNG, which is compressed at more than 3,000 psi, can be used in an internal combustion engine that has been appropriately modified. It can be used to run the machine. Approximately 0.1 percent of the natural gas used in the United States in 2012 was used to run cars, equivalent to more than 5 million barrels of oil.
Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and other pollutants are much less harmful in CNG cars than in cars that run on gasoline. The main problem with CNG is that it doesn’t have as much energy as liquid fuels. It takes a gallon of CNG to power a car only one-quarter as much as a gallon of gasoline.
On the other hand, CNG vehicles need big, bulky fuel tanks, making CNG only useful for big vehicles like buses and trucks. Most of the time, natural gas should be used to make electricity for plug-in cars or hydrogen for fuel cell cars, which can cut back on global warming emissions by 40% or more, but this isn’t always the case.
The effects of competing uses
Because natural gas can be used in so many different ways, it is essential to both the United States and the remains of the planet. Changes in the demand for natural gas for one use can also impact the price of gas for many other services. Gas prices in the United States were often low and stable in the 1990s. The significant increase in the use of natural gas in power plants led to a steady rise in gas prices for all services, from heating homes to making goods.
Since the early 2000s, gas costs have been understood to be very volatile; after prices rose to record levels in 2005 and 2008, they are at their lowest level in eight years. One reason for the volatility is that it can be hard to move gas where there aren’t already pipelines. Because of this, there isn’t a global price for natural gas, and local prices can be significantly affected by the amount of natural gas in the area.
Countries’ energy security can also be put at risk by relying on gas from other countries. Most of the natural gas that Eastern and Central Europe get comes from Russia, and it goes through pipelines in a lot of different countries on its way to the West. There have been a lot of disagreements between Russia and Ukraine, for example, which have caused gas to be cut off, which has led to gas shortages in countries as far away as France and Italy.