Part Three: Reliable, On-Demand Energy
A blog series about the findings of Net-Zero Emissions Opportunities for Gas Utilities. If you are interested in the full report, you can learn more at https://www.aga.org/netzero.
In February 2022, the American Gas Association (AGA) released a vision for the future along with a seminal analysis showing that America’s natural gas, natural gas utilities, and delivery infrastructure are essential to meeting our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, including achieving net-zero emissions, while ensuring our energy system remains safe, affordable, reliable, and resilient. Building on the industry’s ambitious Climate Change Position Statement from January 2020, this new study “Net-Zero Emissions Opportunities for Gas Utilities,” presents a national-level approach that leverages the unique advantages of gas technologies and distribution infrastructure. Several modeled pathways are analyzed to underscore the range of scenarios and technology opportunities available as the nation, regions, states, and communities develop and implement ambitious emission reduction plans. The study details eight key findings in the Net-Zero Emissions Opportunities for Gas Utilities Study including:
The ability of gas infrastructure to store and transport large amounts of energy to meet seasonal and peak day energy use represents an important and valuable resource that needs to be considered when building pathways to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions goals.
Energy consumption varies dramatically throughout the day and over the course of a year. For example, more than twice as much natural gas is consumed in January as in June. The effect is even more noticeable during “peak of peak” periods, those coldest of hours during the coldest day of the year when energy demand soars and the energy system is pushed to work at or near capacity. Having enough energy available to meet those unexpected peaks in demand is key to preventing blackouts during heatwaves, keeping the heat on during winter storms, and providing power for daily necessities. Winter Storm Uri in 2021 illustrates why the energy system of the future must be able to accommodate such peaks and why the resilience brought to the energy system by natural gas is so critical.
Electricity generated by wind and solar energy will be a key part of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. While both sources bring important benefits to the decarbonized energy system, they are intermittent and subject to meteorological conditions that are often not present during peak of peak events. While natural gas and nuclear power plants can substantially increase or decrease production at will, energy production for wind and solar is limited when there is heavy cloud or smoke cover, the wind is not blowing, or temperatures are too low for wind turbines to properly function. As a result, energy systems that are heavily reliant on solar or wind technology risk sharp falls in energy production at the very worst possible times. The variable nature of these technologies means that they must be supplemented with additional energy storage.
Some proposals call for a dramatic ramp-up in battery storage, a technology still in development. While batteries are important, the United States currently owns the largest energy storage facilities in the world in the form of natural gas storage facilities. By leveraging stores of natural gas that can be distributed nationwide using existing infrastructure, the natural gas system helps ensure that available energy is adequate to meet “peak of peak” demand. Such an approach can be combined with new technologies to ensure the energy system remains safe, affordable, reliable, resilient, and decarbonized.
For example, energy can be produced with natural gas while using carbon capture technologies to produce carbon-neutral energy. When energy production is high and power demand is low, electrolysis can be used to create green hydrogen from atmospheric CO2, an emissions-neutral form of energy. Renewable natural gas (RNG) can be harvested from farms, landfills and water resource recovery facilities, preventing that methane from being emitted into the atmosphere and lowering emissions from those sectors. Various combinations of these renewable energy sources and geologic gas can then be consumed during periods of low production, ensuring that the lights, heat and air conditioning stay on. Existing infrastructure can be used to transport these gases long distances, making it a flexible and efficient solution.
Commonly cited decarbonization pathways, including investment in energy-efficient buildings, taking advantage of nationwide distribution infrastructure for renewable fuels and investment in solar and wind are more effective together than as the sum of their parts. Pathways that leverage decarbonization strategies across both the gas and electric systems may have the potential to better maintain low energy costs, improve system reliability, create opportunities for emerging technologies (such as power-to-gas and hydrogen) to support the needs of both systems, accelerate carbon reductions and improve overall energy system resiliency. It is important that we preserve these features while leveraging the gas and electricity systems for their relative strengths, in order to reduce emissions without sacrificing the attributes of the energy system that ensure the fundamental energy needs of Americans are met.