As the economic, security and environmental cost of our oil and coal reliance becomes increasingly problematic, the U.S. is shifting its focus towards natural gas for good reasons. New sources of domestic supply are being developed, natural gas prices are low (at least for now) and natural gas’ carbon emissions are half that of coal. But, in spite of these benefits, rushing straight to natural gas as the principal solution to our energy problems is imprudent—as it distracts from more flexible options.
New domestic supplies from shale gas have potentially damaging environmental and health consequences and don’t currently merit or enjoy public trust. Whether or not such issues like fracking turn out well or badly will determine whether shale gas is a huge or a modest resource, cheap or fairly costly, and tolerable or not in a given locality. Moreover, steeply declining production rates from shale gas wells could still bring unpleasant surprises. Some analysts claim that per-well reserves from major U.S. shale gas plays are less than half of what operators have claimed. We won’t really know one way or the other until we have longer production experience from plays largely developed just in the last five years. As has been the case historically, currently low natural gas prices will eventually rise again, and will likely remain volatile. And, at the end of the day, meeting long-term climate goals requires reducing natural gas consumption, too—not just coal and oil.
That’s not to say that natural gas doesn’t have a critical role in the transition to a low fossil fuel energy system—it does. But, that role is pretty different from natural gas’s current role as one of the dominant primary sources of energy, and as a load-following resource in the electricity system. Rather, natural gas will be most valuable when recalibrated to serve as a transition fuel and as a source of electricity system flexibility.
What drives that recalibration? Experts both inside and outside the industry increasingly agree that energy efficiency has the potential to virtually eliminate growth in electricity demand cost-effectively. Extensive modeling suggests that we can capture and integrate the renewable energy needed to meet 80% or more of our electricity demand by 2050, after efficiency. With these strategies in place, the U.S. can transition off oil and coal, all while cutting natural gas consumption by 25%.
That transition to an efficient and renewable future, which Rocky Mountain Institute calls Reinventing Fire, has big implications for the future of natural gas. As we use energy more efficiently, domestic resources can be stretched further. Renewables like wind and solar are variable and non-dispatchable by grid operators, making natural gas a valuable source of grid flexibility. The focus of the conversation on the future of natural gas should not be on how to increase the amount of gas we use through conventional means, but rather, how to use it most efficiently and use it for it’s most valuable purpose—as a transition fuel and source of flexibility.