Coal is no longer king. Natural gas is becoming the new choice as a key source of electrical power in the U.S. Natural gas is actually taking over the grid in some areas in Pennsylvania.
This trend is evident inside the Fayette Energy Facility where the heart of its power plant is a turbine engine. The facility has two gas turbines that produce power by burning natural gas. The exhaust of those drives the steam turbine. There are three turbines all together, and each has its own generator. The plant captures waste heat and converts it to steam energy—a process that deems the facility a dual cycle power plant. It runs 24-7 and can power half a million homes. Until recently the plant was barely used, but a surge in shale natural gas changed that. Natural gas has changed the grid.
The grid operator in the region of the Fayette Energy Facility is PJM Interconnection. Since PJM makes the decision about what kind of fuel powers the grid, there is daily contact between the grid operator and the plant operations manager at Fayette Energy Facility. If PJM’s recent electrical supply auction for 2015 and 2016 indicate anything, it’s the fact that natural gas is the clear choice. Natural gas emerged as the winner even though future power needs are relying on plants that aren’t even built yet. PJM controls about one-fourth of coal-fired generation in the United States, and said the shift from coal to gas “unprecedented.”
Even though the switch has been swift, gas hasn’t completely eliminated coal usage. Coal still produces about 40 percent of the power in the United States—only four years ago it was generating nearly half. It is expected that one in ten coal-burning power plants in the United States is expected to be shut down in the next few years. This change according to the EPA has already lowered the power sector’s carbon footprint. That’s because gas, when it’s burned, has much lower carbon content than coal, and newer gas plants are more efficient than coal-powered utilities.
The Department of Energy predicts that trends toward a choice of natural gas will continue for the next 25 years. Because of this trend, the department forecasts carbon emissions won’t reach the levels they have in the past.
Natural gas is helping to reduce our carbon footprint, but to truly decrease climate-altering emissions, utilities will have to stick with gas and renewables for decades. The lingering question is: Will gas remain cheap and plentiful?