The Role of Natural Gas in a Low-Carbon Energy Economy*

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Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute

Growing estimates of natural gas resources, including a new category of 'unconventional' gas, suggest that accessible supplies of this least carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels may be far more abundant than previously assumed. This unexpected development creates opportunities for deploying natural gas in a variety of sectors—including power generation, industry, and transportation—to help displace oil and coal, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving air quality.

Beyond providing a cleaner, market-ready alternative to oil and coal, natural gas can facilitate the systemic changes that will underpin the development of a more energy-efficient and renewable energy-based economy. For example, smaller, distributed generators, many producing usable heat as well as electricity, could generate economical, low-emission replacements for a large fraction of currently operating conventional power plants, providing flexible back-up to the variable output of the solar and wind generators that will comprise a growing share of the electric power system.

All of these gains are contingent on the development of sound public policy to incentivize and guide the transition. Critical policy decisions that are now pending include: electric power regulation at the local, state, and federal levels; effective federal and state oversight of the natural gas exploration and extraction process; future Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulatory decisions under the U.S. Clean Air Act; and putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions.This is the first in a series of briefing papers to be issued by the Worldwatch Institute’s Natural Gas and Sustainable Energy Initiative examining the complementary roles of natural gas, renewables, and efficiency. This first paper provides an overview of the role that natural gas currently plays in the energy system and a roadmap for the role that gas could play in spurring the transition to a low-carbon economy in the decades ahead. Future papers will focus on a range of specific issues, from the local environmental problems caused by shale gas development to options for integrating natural gas generation with large wind farms.

*This is the first in a series of briefing papers to be issued by the Worldwatch Institute’s Natural Gas and Sustainable Energy Initiative examining the complementary roles of natural gas, renewables, and efficiency. This first paper provides an overview of the role that natural gas currently plays in the energy system and a roadmap for the role that gas could play in spurring the transition to a low-carbon economy in the decades ahead. Future papers will focus on a range of specific issues, from the local environmental problems caused by shale gas development to options for integrating natural gas generation with large wind farms.

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