Electricity from Natural Gas
Natural gas is a fossil fuel formed when layers of buried plants and animals are exposed to intense heat and pressure over thousands of years. The energy that the plants and animals originally obtained from the sun is stored in the form of carbon in natural gas. Natural gas is combusted to generate electricity, enabling this stored energy to be transformed into usable power. Natural gas is a nonrenewable resource because it cannot be replenished on a human time frame.
The natural gas power production process begins with the extraction of natural gas, continues with its treatment and transport to the power plants, and ends with its combustion in boilers and turbines to generate electricity.
Initially, wells are drilled into the ground to remove the natural gas. After the natural gas is extracted, it is treated at gas plants to remove impurities such as hydrogen sulfide, helium, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, and moisture. Pipelines then transport the natural gas from the gas plants to power plants.
Power plants use several methods to convert gas to electricity. One method is to burn the gas in a boiler to produce steam, which is then used by a steam turbine to generate electricity. A more common approach is to burn the gas in a combustion turbine to generate electricity.
Another technology, that is growing in popularity is to burn the natural gas in a combustion turbine and use the hot combustion turbine exhaust to make steam to drive a steam turbine. This technology is called “combined cycle” and achieves a higher efficiency by using the same fuel source twice.
Although power plants are regulated by federal and state laws to protect human health and the environment, there is a wide variation of environmental impacts associated with power generation technologies.
The purpose of the following section is to give consumers a better idea of the specific air, water, and solid waste releases associated with natural gas-fired generation.
At the power plant, the burning of natural gas produces nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, but in lower quantities than burning coal or oil. Methane, a primary component of natural gas and a greenhouse gas, can also be emitted into the air when natural gas is not burned completely. Similarly, methane can be emitted as the result of leaks and losses during transportation. Emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury compounds from burning natural gas are negligible.
The average emissions rates in the United States from natural gas-fired generation are: 1135 lbs/MWh of carbon dioxide, 0.1 lbs/MWh of sulfur dioxide, and 1.7 lbs/MWh of nitrogen oxides. Compared to the average air emissions from coal-fired generation, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and one percent as much sulfur oxides at the power plant.2 In addition, the process of extraction, treatment, and transport of the natural gas to the power plant generates additional emissions.
Water Resource Use
The burning of natural gas in combustion turbines requires very little water. However, natural gas-fired boiler and combined cycle systems do require water for cooling purposes. When power plants remove water from a lake or river, fish and other aquatic life can be killed, affecting animals and people who depend on these aquatic resources.
Combustion turbines do not produce any water discharges. However, pollutants and heat build up in the water used in natural gas boilers and combined cycle systems. When these pollutants and heat reach certain levels, the water is often discharged into lakes or rivers. This discharge usually requires a permit and is monitored. For more information about these regulations, visit EPA’s Office of Water Web site.
Solid Waste Generation
The use of natural gas to create electricity does not produce substantial amounts of solid waste.
Land Resource Use
The extraction of natural gas and the construction of natural gas power plants can destroy natural habitat for animals and plants. Possible land resource impacts include erosion, loss of soil productivity, and landslides.