Space & Innovation

Natural Gas Poised to Surpass Coal For Electricity in US

Electricity generated from natural gas is poised to surpass coal power for the first time in 2016. Continue reading →

This year is expected to be the first in U.S. history that more electricity will be generated from natural gas than coal, a new analysis has found, marking another milestone in the decline of America's largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Coal that's used to generate electricity represents about 30 percent of U.S. emissions driving climate change. Natural gas emits roughly half the carbon as burning coal, not accounting for methane leakage from natural gas wells and pipelines.

Natural gas overtook coal as the leading U.S. source of electricity - on a monthly basis - last April, but 2016 is likely to be the first full year in which it will have replaced coal as the chief source of electric power nationwide, according to the analysis published this week by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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"Right now, what's been driving the switchover to natural gas from coal is mainly the sustained low natural gas prices," U.S. Energy Information Administration analyst Tyler Hodge said.

Utilities have been routinely retiring coal-fired power plants in recent years as they've had to comply with new mercury emissions standards. They are also grappling with the possibility of having to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their coal-fired power plants to comply with the Clean Power Plan, Hodge said.

The plan, which has been temporarily blocked by the Supreme Court, aims to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

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Low natural gas prices have been driving utilities away from coal for most of the last decade as the nation's shale gas and fracking boom flooded the market with gas. Prior to 2008, coal generated half the nation's electricity. Today, it generates less than 30 percent.

Renewable energy sources are also playing a role in the transition away from coal. More new wind and solar plants are expected to become operational in 2016 than new natural gas plants, EIA data show.

More than 16 gigawatts of wind and solar power generating capacity are expected to be built this year - enough to power roughly 12 million homes. About 8 gigawatts of natural gas power generating capacity will be built in 2016.

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No new coal-fired power plants are expected to be built this year.

Hodge said the annual trend away from coal power generation is unlikely to reverse anytime soon even if natural gas prices rise again.

"Prices of gas have been low for so long, and there's these environmental regulations on top of that, that are making the industry think whether they want to keep these coal plants around," he said.

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Many utilities are quickly making the transition away from coal in favor of natural gas to meet environmental regulations, Quin Shea, vice president of the utility trade group Edison Electric Institute said in a statement.

"Our industry is making significant investments to transition the generation fleet and is taking meaningful actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Shea said.

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Most people would agree that fossil fuels simply need to go. They’re the cause of pollution, wars and climate change. Scientists have been researching alternative energy solutions like wind and solar power, and hydrogen fuel for cars, for years. But while some automakers -- like Toyota and Honda -- are bringing hydrogen-fueled cars to market, wind and solar are still more expensive than oil and coal and may not be the best solution for all places or uses. For example, some medical devices that are implanted in a human body could benefit from super tiny batteries that last decades.

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So scientists continue the quest for abundant, cheap and efficient energy by investigating lesser-known sources, ones that may seem a little unusual, even ridiculous, unrealistic and, in some cases, morbid. “I think in order to solve the impending energy needs we might have to go a bit beyond,” said Bobby Sumpter, a senior research scientist of computational theoretical chemistry at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Here are 11 of the more unusual sources that go above and beyond the norm. Who knows -- one day, you may use sugar to power your laptop, bacteria to run your car or dead bodies to heat a building.

Body Heat

Stretching the imagination when it comes to energy could get us closer to generating energy the way nature does: free and efficient. In London, Mayor Boris Johnson announced that excess heat from the subway tunnels and an electric substation would be funneled into British homes.

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Sugar

Traditionally, putting sugar into a gas tank is a prank that can ruin a car’s engine. But someday, it could be a great way to fuel a vehicle. “We should not dismiss ideas, we should let people pursue ideas of unusual things,” Diego del Castillo Negrete, a senior research scientist in the Fusion Energy Division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory said. Researchers and chemists at Virginia Tech are developing a way to convert sugar into hydrogen, which can be used in a fuel cell, providing a cheaper, cleaner, pollutant-free and odorless drive. The scientists combine plant sugars, water and 13 powerful enzymes in a reactor, converting the concoction into hydrogen and trace amounts of carbon dioxide.

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The hydrogen could be captured and pumped through a fuel cell to produce energy. Their process delivers three times more hydrogen than traditional methods, which translates into cost savings. Unfortunately, it might be another decade before consumers can actually dump sugar into their gas tanks. What seems more realistic in the short term is using the same technology to create long-lasting sugar-based batteries for laptops, cell phones and other electronics.

Solar Wind

One hundred billion times more power than humanity currently needs is available right now, out in space. It comes through solar wind, a stream of energized, charged particles flowing outward from the sun. Brooks Harrop, a physicist at Washington State University in Pullman and Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State’s School of Earth and Environmental Science, think they can capture these particles with a satellite that orbits the sun the same distance Earth does.

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Their so-called Dyson-Harrop satellite would have a long copper wire charged by onboard batteries in order to produce a magnetic field perfect for snagging the electrons in the solar wind. The energy from the electrons would be beamed from the satellite via a infrared laser to Earth, since the infrared spectrum would not be affected by the planet’s atmosphere. This Dyson-Harrop satellite holds a few technical problems that researchers are currently trying to fix. It has no protection from space debris, and some of the power could be lost as it’s beamed through Earth’s atmosphere. Plus, finding a way to aim the laser beam across millions of miles of space is no small task. What seems more realistic is to use this satellite in order to power nearby space missions.

Feces and Urine

Most people think that feces and urine should be disposed of immediately. But feces contains methane, a colorless, odorless gas that could be used in the same way as natural gas. At least two solutions -- one in Cambridge, Mass., called Park Spark and one in San Francisco run by Norcal Waste -- is focused on converting dog poo into methane.

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In both solutions, dog walkers are provided biodegradable bags, which after they’re filled, are placed into a large container called a digester. Inside, microorganisms process the poo, giving off methane as a byproduct. The methane can be used to power lights In Pennsylvania, a dairy farm is looking to cow manure for energy. Six hundred cows that produce 18,000 gallons of manure daily are helping the farm save $60,000 a year. The waste is used to produce electricity, bedding, fertilizer and heating fuel. And Hewlett-Packard recently released a study explaining how a dairy farmer could make money by leasing land to Internet server companies, who could power computers with the methane. Human waste is just as good. In Bristol, Australia a VW Beetle car is powered by methane captured from a raw sewage treatment plant. Engineers from Wessex Water estimate the waste from 70 homes can generate enough gas to make the car run for 10,000 miles. And let’s not forget urine. At the Heriot-Watt University's School of Engineering and Physical Sciences in Edinburgh, scientists are looking for a way to make world's first urine-powered fuel cells. It could be a viable way for astronauts or military personnel, for instance, to produce power on the go. Urea is an accessible, non-toxic, organic chemical compound rich in nitrogen. So yes, humans are constantly carrying around a chemical compound that can produce electricity.

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The next time you’re standing in a crowded subway in the middle of summer, don’t sweat it. The heat your body produces can warm an entire building, complete with offices, apartments and shops. At least that’s what's happening in Stockholm and Paris. Jernhuset, a state owned property administration company is putting together a plan to capture body heat from train commuters traveling through Stockholm’s Central Station. The heat will warm water running through pipes, which will then be pumped through the building’s ventilation system.

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Paris Habitat, owner of a low-income housing project in Paris, will also use body heat to warm 17 apartments in a building, which is directly above a metro station near Pompidou Center. On a more morbid and less sweaty note, a crematorium in the United Kingdom is using gasses released from the cremation process to heat a crematorium. The energy in cremated bodies is already being captured when it has to pass through filters to remove the mercury in the deceased’s fillings. Instead of letting the energy escape, pipes are used to pump it through the building.

Vibrations

Go out and party; it may help the environment. Club Watt in Rotterdam, Netherlands is using floor vibrations from people walking and dancing to power its light show. The vibrations are captured by “piezoelectric” materials that produce an electric change when put under stress. The U.S. Army is also looking at piezoelectric technology for energy. They put the material in soldier’s boots in order to charge radios and other portable devices. Although this is an interesting renewable energy with great potential, it’s not cheap. Club Watt spent $257,000 on this first generation 270-square-foot floor, more money than it can recoup. But the floor will be reprogrammed to improve output in the future. Your dance moves really can be electric.

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Sludge

California municipalities alone produce 700,000 metric tons of dried sludge annually, which has the potential to generate 10 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per day. The University of Nevada, Reno, is drying sludge to make it burnable for a gasification process, which turns it into electricity. A team of researchers at the university built the processing machine as a way of producing low cost and energy efficient technology. The machine turns gooey sludge into powder by using relatively low temperatures in a fluidized bed of sand and salts to produce the biomass fuel.

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The waste-to-energy technology is designed to be on site which means companies can save on trucking costs, disposal fees, and electricity. Although the research is still ongoing, estimates show that a full-scale system can potentially generate 25,000 kilowatt-hours per day to help power reclamation facilities.

Jellyfish

Jellyfish that glow in the dark contain the raw ingredients for a new kind of fuel cell. Their glow is produced by green fluorescent protein, referred to as GFP. A team at The Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, placed a drop of GFP onto aluminum electrodes and then exposed that to ultraviolet light. The protein released electrons, which travel a circuit to produce electricity. The same proteins have been used to make a biological fuel cell, which makes electricity without an external light source. Instead of an external light source, a mixture of chemicals such as magnesium and luciferase enzymes, which are found in fireflies, were used to produce electricity from the device. These fuel cells can be used on small, nano devices such as those that could be implanted in a person to diagnose or treat disease.

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Exploding Lakes

There are three known "exploding lakes," in the world, so called because they contain huge reservoirs of methane and carbon dioxide trapped in the depths by differences in water temperature and density. If temperatures should change and the lake turns, these gases would immediately fizz to the surface like a shaken bottle of soda, killing the millions of people and animals living nearby. In fact, such an event happened on Aug. 15, 1984, when Cameroon's Lake Nyos unleashed a huge cloud of concentrated carbon dioxide, instantly suffocating hundreds of people and animals. In Rwanda, Lake Kivu is such a place. But the government has built a power plant that sucks up the noxious gases from the lake to power three large generators, which produce 3.6 megawatts of electricity. The government hopes that in the next couple of years, the plant could be producing enough power for one-third of the country.

Bacteria

Billions of bacteria live out in the wild, and like any living organism, they have a survival strategy for when there is a limited food supply. E. coli bacteria store fuel in the form of fatty acids that resembles polyester. That same fatty acid is needed for the production of biodiesel fuel. So, researchers are looking to genetically modify E. coli microorganisms to overproduce those polyester-like acids. The scientists removed enzymes from the bacteria to boost fatty acid production, and then dehydrated the fatty acid to get rid of the oxygen, which made turned it into a type of diesel fuel. The same bacteria that can make us sick can also help save people money and the environment, by providing fuel for transportation.

Carbon Nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes are hollow tubes of carbon atoms that have a range of potential uses, from armor-like fabrics to elevators that could lift cargo between Earth and the moon. Recently, scientists from MIT have a found a way to use carbon nanotubes to collect 100 times more solar energy than a regular photovoltaic cell. The nanotubes could work as antenna to capture and funnel sunlight onto solar arrays. This means that instead of having an entire rooftop covered in solar panels, a person may need just a small space.