The promised golden age of natural gas has begun to take hold globally. Fortunately, rising natural gas demand will not require a corresponding increase in infrastructure spending across the United States, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy. These findings hold even as the U.S. electric power sector—currently the largest consumer of natural gas in the country—saw generation from natural gas replace that of coal in recent months. This corresponds with a sharp increase in demand for natural gas from multiple end-use sectors.
With the Henry Hub reference price for natural gas in the United States lingering below $5 per million Btu (mmBtu) since the early part of 2014, a demand surge is expected to continue across the power generation sector.
Renewables and Gas
The United States, already the largest consumer of natural gas in the world, is expected to see a 33% increase in demand by 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2014 reference case. Growth is expected to be 42% for the electric power sector between 2012 and 2040 under the same scenario.
Living up to its promise as a bridge fuel to a low carbon future, natural gas is helping backfill baseload generation, especially in areas where coal plant retirements are highest. The combination of wind or solar power and gas-fired generation, meanwhile, has emerged as an option for states looking for more access to lower-carbon electricity. This hybrid approach is playing out across the expansive areas of the West, where electrical grid transmission bottlenecks have made it difficult to export renewable generation from areas of high productivity (e.g., Wyoming) to population centers on the West Coast, for example.
Not Laying Pipe
The increased use of natural gas in the electric power sector, however, is not without potential challenges. Unlike competing fuels, natural gas is delivered as it is consumed, and cannot be stored onsite like coal. Furthermore, adequate infrastructure is needed to maintain electric system reliability. The investment of $65 billion in new interstate pipeline construction over the past 18 years appears to be sufficient to deliver natural gas from producing regions to end users across the country without substantial new investment.
Unlike the U.S. electrical grid, natural gas power plants and natural gas production are both broadly distributed rather than geographically concentrated, reducing constraints on interstate pipeline capacity. What’s more, lower-cost investment options, such as improving the utilization of existing infrastructure and rerouting gas flows, are far cheaper than building new pipelines.
As the U.S. power sector faces several concurrent transitions—retirement of coal-fired generation, aging electrical transmission infrastructure, and a surge in the use of intermittent renewables—these findings suggest that natural gas will continue its emergence as the workhouse on the modern electrical grid.