Natural Gas vs. Coal

Advantages of natural gas

Martin County plant just north of West Palm Beach, Florida- a hybrid solar thermal/ combined cycle natural gas plant
Among other advantages of natural gas - gas power plants combine seamlessly with solar - Martin County plant just north of West Palm Beach, Florida - a hybrid solar thermal/ combined-cycle natural gas plant

[Note: the only way to get low carbon natural gas is by combining gas generation with carbon capture and storage (CCS) - a technology that is not yet widely commercially available (as of 2023, there are about 40 commercial CCS operations worldwide, with 50 more projects that are currently in various stages of development and aiming to come online this decade).

Additionally, it should be noted that renewable energy has a tiny carbon footprint compared to natural gas, although gas has a much smaller carbon footprint than coal. This article discusses the advantages of natural gas over coal, including the creation of less carbon emissions.]

Natural gas facts


Natural gas reservoirs in vast shale rock formations underground have been discovered and developed in the US throughout the 21st century, leading to a gas "boom" (the gas boom in the US really started gaining momentum in 2005). The gas and oil recovered in these wells are first loosened by a high-pressure "fracking fluid" (a mix of water, sand, and chemicals).

Hydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as "fracking") is the process of extracting fossil fuels from sedimentary rock. Horizontal drills go deep underground (directional drilling) to extract gas and oil trapped in shale rock and other sedimentary rock.

The natural gas boom (known as "the fracking revolution", or "the shale gas revolution") in the United States got going a few years into the 21st century and was especially prominent from 2008 to about 2018.

Natural gas produces far less greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) when it's burned for energy as compared to coal - other than the potent GHG methane. Methane is created in higher quantities with natural gas combustion than with coal combustion.

How much lower are GHGs from natural gas than coal? The difference is dramatic, making natural gas a much cleaner-burning energy alternative compared to coal (although compared to renewable energy generation for electricity, natural gas is still not really "clean").

According to the Worldwatch Institute, natural gas energy generation emits about half the amount of GHGs as coal (although natural gas combustion produces the much more potent GHG methane in higher amounts than coal, natural gas produces about half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal). This statistic includes taking a variety of factors into account, such as methane flares and methane leaks associated with natural gas vs. the quantity of GHGs from coal combustion.

Methane stays in the atmosphere for a far shorter duration than carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHGs that are produced in larger amounts from coal combustion (CO2 is the most significant GHG associated with coal). It must be noted that methane is a more potent GHG than CO2 (methane is far more potent than carbon dioxide).

Methane is over 80 times more potent than CO2 in the first 20 years of being in the atmosphere, but usually only stays in the atmosphere for about 12 years, whereas CO2 stays in the atmosphere for centuries. Thus, overall, natural gas burns much cleaner than coal in the long run.

Another upside of energy from natural gas is that, like solar and wind, natural gas is less expensive than coal in every stage of energy production and use of the fuel source.

Coal has fallen from supplying over 50% of U.S. total energy output at the turn of the century to less than 20% in 2023. Natural gas has increased from 15% to around 40% of overall United States energy production in that same time period (2000-2023). Because natural gas burns cleaner than coal, this shift to more gas than coal combustion for U.S. energy has without a doubt been a factor in the significant reduction of GHGs being pumped into the atmosphere from the US.

Natural gas power plants can use emerging CCS technologies to produce even cleaner energy.

Although CCS can be used with any energy generation process that produces CO2 emissions, CCS with natural gas combined cycle is a promising use of carbon capture in the power sector. CCS can be used with combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT) to lower GHGs during the energy production process.

CCGT technology results in a more efficient, less expensive production of energy from natural gas, with lower emissions. CCGT + CCS is a hopeful, promising future mix of technologies that theoretically could produce low carbon natural gas. It must be emphasized that CCGT + CCS is still theoretical as the combination of these technologies is still not commercially available.

However, as an individual technology, CCGT plants are in widespread use today (without CCS), with highly efficient gas turbines producing cleaner, and less expensive, gas (cleaner than non-CCGT plants). The field of CCGT is expanding, with the newer CCGT plants using advanced CCGT technology.

In the United States, over 30% of natural gas is generated using advanced combined cycle gas generation; and that share of the U.S. gas market for the lower cost, higher efficiency advanced gas combined-cycle plants is increasing.

Gas plants can also combine to work in synergy with solar and solar thermal and energy storage in power plants. When natural gas is used in these capacities, it is certainly a clean(er) energy technology (although burning natural gas still produces GHG emissions).

Another way gas can work with renewable energy is with natural gas "peaker" power plants, which provide backup energy (needed due to the variability of renewable energy) to the grid, in lieu of energy storage (such as grid-scale battery storage).

In addition to having a lower cost than coal, natural gas also represents a significant source of employment, income, and revenue to the U.S. economy. Although natural gas is still a fossil fuel, natural gas can be part of a clean energy project by efficiently integrating with renewable energy and energy storage (see the hybrid Martin County power plant pictured above). Such hybrid power plants certainly exemplify clean energy technologies creating jobs in the US economy. Clean energy jobs provide a needed boost to the economy.

Another advantage of gas is that natural gas rigs tend to be less obtrusive within the environment when compared to mountaintop removal coal mining, strip mining, and the large-scale terraced pits of major coal operations.

The countries that produce the most gas are the United States and Russia. The natural gas-producing countries of China, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Norway, and Australia, combined, don't produce as much gas as the US and Russia each do individually.

The countries and regions that consume the most natural gas, after the United States (which consumes over 20% of the world's gas), are the EU nations and Russia, with Germany individually being the highest gas-consuming EU nation. However, Germany still consumes less natural gas energy than Canada, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Mexico.

Greenhouse gas reductions with natural gas


The United States actually reduced its GHGs back to 1996 levels more than a decade ago, largely due to a focus on natural gas energy generation and away from coal. Natural gas use instead of coal - coal-to-gas switching - was primarily responsible for GHG reductions in the United States until solar and wind have exponentially risen in use this decade (the 2020's).

Today, renewable energy, which has low to zero emissions, is the primary cause of GHG reductions, along with nuclear, which has virtually no emissions other than steam.

It is true that much of the credit for the GHG reduction in the United States from 2010-2020 has been widely attributed to a significant shift from coal to natural gas to power major U.S. electrical utilities, however, today renewable energy has a much larger role.

Starting in the 2020's with wide commercial use, solar and wind have been making significant contributions to the reduction of GHGs from the United States' power-producing sector (in addition to coal-to-gas switching). The use of solar and wind energy will continue to increase this decade, and along with other renewable energy sources and nuclear energy, continue to reduce GHGs from energy.

Note - other factors have reduced the overall production of GHGs in the U.S., in addition to the rising use of renewable energy, such as: the increased fuel efficiency in vehicles, the use of sustainable public mass transit, fewer vehicles on the road due to increased use of public transit and ride-sharing services, and the increased use of green building and energy efficiency technologies. Still, the reduction of coal usage and the increase of natural gas is a significant influence on the reduction of GHGs.

There have been recent international measures to limit and reduce methane leaks, venting, flaring, and other emissions from natural gas.

The quantity of CO2 and other GHGs produced by burning coal is significantly higher than with natural gas, making coal have a much greater impact on the environment.

Natural gas is less expensive, cleaner and more efficient than coal


Natural Gas Vs Coal
a natural gas power plant

In addition to burning cleaner than coal, natural gas is cheap (only renewable energy from wind and solar are less expensive). The low price of gas can be seen in this study by the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute. Natural gas also integrates seamlessly when paired with renewable energy and energy storage.

CCS significantly reduces GHGs from the production of energy when applied to the burning of gas for energy. In order to mitigate anthropogenic climate change, the energy generation sector must be focused on ways to reduce pollutants; such as technologies like CCS.

Natural Gas Vs Coal
coal plants produce dirty emissions

The biggest of the MANY significant drawbacks of coal is that, while being abundant, it is also among the dirtiest forms of energy (only tar-sand crude oil is dirtier). Coal emits a tremendous amount of GHGs, and also emits fine particulates, which cause public health hazards and are a danger to wildlife and the environment.

In burning coal for energy, the many negative externalities of coal (such as: contributing significantly to climate change, damage to public health, damage to plant and animal ecosystems, and other damage to the environment from coal pollution) must be considered; external costs which add dramatically to the economic and social cost of coal.

Controversies with natural gas   


Of course, the boom in natural gas production has not been without controversy. The process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking - the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock) has spawned widespread protest, especially from environmental groups, because the process is tremendously damaging to the environment.

Fracking requires enormous amounts of water, which is mixed with huge quantities of silica, and a large variety of toxic chemicals, to be injected deep underground; causing minor earthquakes, frequent leaks of methane from natural gas rigs, and leaks of other toxic chemicals from fracking operations that get into freshwater supplies, causing damage to ecosystems, animal, and human health.

Here's a list of 20 negative impacts of fracking on the environment. It must be emphasized that coal is much worse for the environment.

Please see: Energy Storage

and Power to Gas - renewable energy storage, and fuel for the grid