Natural gas has become the fossil fuel of choice in the last decade as energy producers shift towards less environmentally-impactful fuels. The U.S. today produces almost all of the natural gas that it uses. Investments into fracking technology allowed massive upticks in production in the U.S. and current innovations promise to utilize natural gas energy more efficiently. Fuel cells that can produce electricity from natural gas safely and efficiently, while carbon neutral natural gas plants may be just over the horizon.
Fuel cells that are powered by natural gas are often the most economical. Due to ample supplies of natural gas being available in the U.S. and fuel cells needing a source of hydrogen to produce electricity, large fuel cell operations can be feasible using natural gas. Fuel cells powered by natural gas can generate electricity at rates up to 60 percent, compared to 33-35 percent for conventional combustion-based power plants. Fracking wells normally vent a portion of natural gas that is extracted, while more gas can escape through leaks in the fracking system. Fuel cells have the potential to act as a harnesser of this escaping gas, producing more energy, taking harmful methane emissions out of the atmosphere, and delivering a profit to frackers.
Fuel cells also have the potential to reduce the carbon emissions from drilling sites. Powering fracking drills with fuel cells have the potential to negate volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that produce smog. Drill sites could utilize the energy created by these fuel cells to power machinery at the drill site, which would go towards reducing each drill site’s energy costs alongside emissions. By reducing the amount of natural gas that escapes into the atmosphere and harnessing it for fuel, drillers will reap greater amounts of gas collected, while cracking down on avenues of escape for gas at drilling sites. Plugging leaks and stopping flaring means more energy harnessed for the national grid, be it through a fuel cell or traditional pipelines.
In highly-populated areas such as urban centers, fuel cells can be consolidated to form multi-megawatt power plants. South Korea and Japan have the most extensive fuel cell power generation plants, with the world’s largest being the 59 megawatt (MW) Gyeonggi Green Energy park supplying clean energy from multiple inputs. A pilot power plant project by Net Power is testing whether a power plant can produce energy as cheaply as standard plants while capturing all carbon emissions. Net Power uses the carbon dioxide generated from natural gas combustion to drive a specific turbine, on top of being continually recyclable, creating even more energy. Finding a suitable market for the remaining carbon dioxide still remains a challenge.
Natural gas utility as a bridge fuel has made investments in its use widespread. However, it can be much more than just a bridge fuel. From powering fuel cells to being a carbon-neutral source of energy, natural gas has the potential to be a mainstay fuel for energy production. Barriers to energy storage and energy atrophy remain a problem for storing energy, but continued innovation can deliver those solutions in time.
Written by Roy Mathews, Former Public Policy Associate
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.