Cleantech Market Intelligence
Waiting for the Methane Hydrates Boom
Even as the heralded natural gas energy revolution is still gearing up, the natural gas vehicle industry may be looking ahead to the next revolution. While shale gas is having a significant impact on U.S. energy economics, some in the natural gas truck and bus industry are already eyeing the potential that methane hydrates could secure natural gas as the energy source for transportation in the 21st century.
During the research for my upcoming report, Natural Gas Trucks and Buses, methane hydrates came up twice in conversations, which made me curious as to how real this prospect is. Methane hydrate (also known as methane calthrate) is methane trapped inside a water molecule, so that the molecule is flammable. Estimates for the quantity of methane available in methane hydrates vary widely, from 100,000 trillion cubic feet (tcf) to 100 million tcf of methane. Worldwide methane consumption was 113 tcf in 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. As my colleague Sam Jaffe wrote in a recent blog, though, the methane hydrates revolution is far from a certainty due to environmental and economic concerns, as well as a lack of mining infrastructure.
The Next Revolution?
The Canadians, rich in shale gas, ended their research into methane hydrates this year, which makes the Japanese the leader in R&D on mining technologies. In March of this year, Japan produced 120,000 cubic meters of gas from methane hydrates in a 6-day offshore test. On October 31, the Japanese officially requested that the U.S. collaborate on developing mining technologies, with a target of production beginning in 2018 or 2019.
In terms of politics and energy consumption, 2018 seems like a long way off. But natural gas power plants can take up to 3 years from design, approval, and construction to operation, and most vehicle manufacturers are already planning or actively working on 2017 model year vehicles. That’s why methane hydrates are coming up in conversations now.
What isn’t clear is whether the research into methane hydrates mining can get political support before the shale gas revolution has run its course or before biomethane and coal seam gas become economically competitive. Clearly, in Canada, the answer is no. Now that methane hydrates are known to exist and have been proven technically minable, countries with the means and needs for new energy sources (Japan, Germany, South Korea, and perhaps even China) are likely to push ahead to improve the economics of this potential new revolution. If methane hydrates can be recovered in an environmentally sustainable and economically viable way, they are unlikely to remain underwater for long.