The Shift is On
Summer is most certainly here and when the mercury rises we change the way we use energy. For a decade, the lead story has been about how America’s abundance of natural gas has driven down prices, and a race to use more natural gas to generate power has pushed out coal and made room for renewables. That is certainly true. Increased use of natural gas is the single largest factor in power sector emissions reaching 27-year lows. But affordable and stable prices have also driven growth in the residential and commercial sector where natural gas is used more efficiently. One new customer signs up for natural gas service every minute on average, and 21,000 new businesses choose natural gas every year. These customers hold the key to our emissions reduction goals.
Let’s look at some data: From 2018-2020, the U.S. used an average of 65.6 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas per day in the month of June. 33.4 Bcf went to power generation while 12.1 Bcf went to residential and commercial buildings. 20.2 Bcf went to the industrial sector as a feedstock for making products or to fuel our manufacturing. That number stays relatively steady month-to-month. But in January, we consume a whopping 98.2 Bcf per day, using 26.5 Bcf for power generation and sending 47.2 Bcf to homes and businesses – nearly four times as much as we use in June.
Looking at the 33 percent difference between our total natural gas demand in June versus January speaks to the role that natural gas plays in the lives of 180 million Americans, 5.5 million businesses and the often-underappreciated magnitude of the natural gas delivery system. On the coldest day of the year, the natural gas system delivers three times more energy than the electric grid delivers on the hottest day of the year. February 14-15, 2021 set a record for the largest natural gas demand for a two-day period. 149.8 Bcf was delivered on February 15 while 68.9 Bcf of natural gas flowed to the residential and commercial sector – 63 percent higher than the daily average for February. Yet, there was still ample supply to send 27.5 Bcf to our industrial customers, 39.7 Bcf to power generation, and 9.8 Bcf was exported either by pipeline to Mexico or transported as liquified natural gas by ship.
One reason: furnaces work harder than air conditioners. If you like to keep your home at 72 degrees Fahrenheit and it is 95 degrees outside, your air conditioning must lower the temperature by only 23 degrees. But if it is 32 degrees outside, and you want your home to be a comfy 72, your furnace must raise the temperature by 40 degrees – and many places in the U.S. drop well below 32 degrees in the winter.
And natural gas is reliable. Guy Piazza from Red Bank, NJ wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, “In 30 years I have lost electric power at my home nearly 100 times, sometimes for days including after superstorm Sandy, while I cannot remember losing natural gas once.” He is right. The Gas Technology Institute found in a study in 2018 that, on average, only 1 in 112 customers are expected to experience a natural gas outage (planned or unplanned) in any given year. Unplanned outages affect about 1 in 800 natural gas customers per year. By comparison, electric distribution systems have an average of one outage per year per customer.
Finally, natural gas is more efficiently used in a home than it is in a power plant. The natural gas delivery system is 91 percent efficient from production to customer. Converting natural gas into electricity only maintains 36 percent of usable energy on its way to your house. Widespread adoption of emerging natural gas direct use technologies—using natural gas directly for cooking, home heating or clothes drying—could contribute significantly to achieving deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. residential sector at much lower costs than other options under consideration. Adopting advanced gas technologies could reduce residential emissions by approximately 40 percent. That would be on top of the $1.47 billion invested annually by natural gas utilities to help customers install tighter-fitting windows and doors, upgrade insulation and purchase increasingly more efficient natural gas appliances. With these significant investments, natural gas utilities helped their customers offset over 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from 2012 to 2018—the equivalent to removing 2.9 million cars off the road for a year. And the gas system’s ability to integrate high-value sources of energy like renewable natural gas (derived from biogenic or other renewable sources) and hydrogen will go even further towards reaching our nation’s ambitious greenhouse gas reductions goals.
Amidst the summer heat, policymakers throughout the country are contemplating how we can achieve our shared goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions. The answers are not simple, but they are right in front of us. We can build upon what works. The natural gas delivery system and the companies that own and operate it are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through smart innovation, new and modernized infrastructure and advanced technologies that maintain reliable, resilient, and affordable energy service choices for consumers.