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The Golden Age of Natural Gas

A regular reader of this blog kindly sent me a link to the International Energy Agency’s new study on global natural gas, to which he contributed. The report, entitled, “Are We Entering A Golden Age for Gas?” was launched with a press conference yesterday in London. It presents a scenario in which gas use grows rapidly due to faster demand growth, particularly in the developing world, increased supply from unconventional sources such as shale gas, and a slower expansion of nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daichi accident. Its key findings envision gas providing 25% of world energy by 2035, up from 21% today, and eclipsing the share of coal before 2030, with corresponding benefits for global greenhouse gas emissions.

The IEA’s presenters were careful to point out that they are not proposing this view as the likeliest scenario, but as an offshoot of their primary World Energy Outlook scenario published last fall, which incorporated the commitments at the Copenhagen climate conference. The new gas scenario depends on a number of uncertainties, including the resolution of some of the concerns about the environmental impacts of unconventional gas production, along with the realization of carbon-intensity and gas-development targets in places like China. However, it doesn’t depend on new technology or dramatic changes such as a massive move to natural gas for vehicle use. (The latter is presented as a “High Impact Low Probability” sensitivity.) Its big shifts occur in the big existing gas market segments, for power generation globally and for industry and buildings in the developing world.

I was struck by several elements of the scenario. First, although much of the focus on unconventional gas has been on North America, where many of the techniques were pioneered, this is very much a global story. The IEA shows estimated unconventional gas resources from shale, “tight gas” and coal-bed methane that exceed conventional gas resources in Asia and Africa and rival them even in Eastern Europe/Eurasia. On the strength of its unconventional resources China could become the world’s third-largest gas producer by 2035, behind Russia and the US. So even if the US plaintiffs bar attempts to turn “fracking” into the next tobacco or asbestos, unconventional gas exploitation will likely progress elsewhere. At the same time, increases in conventional gas production are expected to exceed those from unconventional sources, by 60/40 over the period studied. That requires big increases in LNG production in Australia and a substantial increase in pipeline capacity linking Russian and Central Asian gas to markets in Europe and Asia. It’s also worth noting that despite the shale gas bonanza, the IEA doesn’t envision the US becoming a net gas exporter.

As one of my mentors frequently reminded me, natural gas doesn’t get developed without a market, and in this scenario the biggest source of new demand is in power generation, where the combination of lower gas prices and the 60% thermal efficiency of combined cycle gas turbines makes gas highly competitive, even with coal. It’s less clear whether gas is taking market share from new nuclear based on price, or mainly filling the gap that the response to Fukushima is leaving in some markets. From what I heard on a power industry webinar yesterday, the former is a significant factor, at least in the US. The strong connection between gas and power is another reason why so much of the growth in gas demand–80% by the IEA’s estimate–is expected to occur in developing countries including China and India, where electricity demand is expanding at rates that the US and Europe haven’t experienced for years or decades. Perhaps the most startling forecast in the report is that China’s gas demand could grow from roughly matching Germany’s today to about the level of the entire EU in 25 years. That would be supported as much by additional imports as from domestic unconventional gas output.

As I’d have expected, the IEA provided a sober assessment of the environmental implications of their scenario. Increasing the share of gas in global energy demand reduces global GHG emissions by 160 million tons of CO2 equivalent by 2035–less than 1% of total emissions–by substituting for coal and some oil. That’s a lot less than if the extra gas didn’t also contribute to higher energy demand by keeping electricity prices lower, while outcompeting some lower-emission renewables and nuclear projects. The IEA states plainly that relying on more gas is not a silver bullet for climate change, although it is a positive step.

In addition to pointing out the need for safe handling of the fluids involved in hydraulic fracturing, the report also specifically addresses the critique of Howarth and others concerning the direct emissions from shale gas production. The IEA found that CO2-equivalent emissions for shale gas from well to burner exceed those for conventional gas by 3.5%-12%, depending on whether the methane liberated during well completion is captured, flared or vented to the atmosphere. Even at the high end, that does not negate gas’s emissions advantage over other fossil fuels, especially when power generation efficiencies are factored in. The report’s authors apparently see most of the excess emissions compared to conventional gas production as representing an opportunity that can be captured with current technology and best practices.

The IEA put a price tag on this shift to gas: a cumulative $8 trillion through 2035 , nearly $1 trillion higher than the gas infrastructure investment in their global energy scenario of last fall. Those figures aren’t as hard to fathom in the context of developed-country budget deficits and debt as they might seem, because they mainly reflect unsubsidized, economically attractive investments by publicly-traded and state-owned energy companies that are making healthy profits and have substantial cash flow on which to draw. Surprisingly, the IEA sees most of the incremental investment in gas coming at the expense of oil. Although they deliberately framed the title of their scenario as a question that hinges on a number of variables, the report comes across as a plausible and credible glimpse of our possible energy future.

Content Discussion

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on June 10, 2011

Thanks, Willem.  I recall reading those when you put them out.  Looks like good work.  Gas-based power also has advantages in its combination of large scale and short project timelines with a small land footprint.  Clearly the mix is going to include more renewables going forward, and that makes gas even more desirable as not just a backup for when wind and solar are becalmed or dark, but also for the flexibility to respond to their ongoing intermittency when producing.  I was reading up on the new GE “Flex-Efficiency” turbine this morning, which looks like a great fit in this regard.  I’ll probably post on it in the next week.