A century ago, Edison’s electric light bulb switched off millions of gas lamps illuminating streets, squares and railway stations around the world, and put gas works effectively out of business. But a new GE study titled the Age of Gas says that gas is back and becoming a focal point of global energy supply and demand. “Natural gas… is positioned to rival coal consumption as well as take share from oil on the global stage,” say the study’s authors Peter C. Evans and Michael F. Farina. They write that gas will also increasingly complement wind and other renewable energy sources in power generation.
Evans and Farina say that utilities, global businesses, homes and also trains, trucks and other means of transportation have already embraced natural gas. The analysts expect that gas consumption will grow by more than a third from its current level by 2025. They estimate that international trade in liquefied natural gas (LNG) will increase by 70 percent in this decade alone.
The authors point out that natural gas has “significantly lower environmental emissions relative to other fossil fuels.” The “flexibility” of natural gas power plants – they can start up is less that 30 minutes and increase power output at 100 megawatts per minute – can also help utilities incorporate wind and solar power in the grid, which vary with the weather.
The latest flexible combined cycle power plants are reaching thermal efficiencies in excess of 61 percent. That means almost two-thirds of the energy in the natural gas is converted into electricity. The Department of Energy has reportedly likened such efficiency to running a four-minute mile. “The future of gas is not going to be the same as the past,” Evans and Farina write.
In the Middle East, the share of natural gas in power generation already stands at 60 percent. (It is 28 percent in the U.S. and 20 percent in Europe.)
Land-based gas pipelines transport 89 percent of the gas consumed today. They authors say that gas network growth, innovation and new supply options like shale gas are helping create greater gas network density and resilience, and improve economics. “Denser networks contribute to making energy systems more robust and therefore more resilient to disruption and less likely to exhibit extreme price volatility,” they say.
Evans and Farina write that “gas networks, which are often underground, in contrast to road and power grids, can often provide stable service during severe weather events. In this way, gas can contribute broadly to economic resiliency by providing diversification, redundancy, and backup systems.”
The advantages of such distributed power came to light last year during Hurricane Sandy. While large parts of the Northeast were in the dark, a gas turbine located at Princeton University kept the campus lit and warm.
The authors write that innovations like floating LNG technologies and small gas gathering, conversion and transportation systems will also have “dramatic impact” on gas network growth. “The new technologies that help integrate and transform small-scale LNG and CNG [compressed natural gas] systems into ‘virtual pipelines’ will be important to the rapid development of new gas markets like the transportation sector,” they write.
They also believe that the Industrial Internet, which links data from machine sensors to people and software, will bring new tools for monitoring, control and analytics of pipelines, generators and other technology.
“One defining characteristic of networks is that they become more valuable with size as more entities join the network,” Evans and Farina write. “These characteristics facilitate the development of adjacent networks, uncovering hidden opportunities to create value as new links are established.”