A common Google search these days is “coal vs natural gas.” This is understandable, as for the last decade, coal and natural gas have been duking it out to hold the title as the primary source of electricity in the United States. We would all like to see faster growth of zero-carbon renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. However, renewable energy sources simply are not yet at the level to take the lead. So, for this discussion, we will stick to the current top-dogs in the electricity production arena.
Economically, coal has long had the upper-hand on natural gas. Simply put, it has always been cheaper to burn coal as a fuel for electricity than to burn natural gas. However, thanks to the shale revolution, the cost of natural gas has dropped dramatically. Also, the availability of natural gas is much more attainable than in past years.
But the question of coal versus natural gas as an electrical source merits more than simply the sheer economics. In this article we will discuss the price difference, along with the difference in carbon emissions and the environmental impact.
Coal vs Natural Gas Price
When looking at coal vs natural gas price, we need to look at both the cost of the fuel itself, as well as the final cost of electricity produced by each fuel source. For the first half of this decade, natural gas cost twice as much as coal. Additionally, the price of coal was quite stable, between $2.00 and $2.50 per million BTU. Meanwhile, the price of natural gas varied drastically, from $2.50 to $7.50 per million BTU. These pricing variances made it challenging to compete with coal during those past years.
However, after 2015, the price of natural gas started dropping and stabilizing due to the development of new fracking technologies. Still, natural gas has been averaging about $3.50 per million BTU, substantially higher than coal, which has been hovering around $2.20 per million BTU.
This sounds as if electricity from natural gas is still nearly 60% more expensive than from coal. However, the end-cost of the electricity does not hold the same gap in price. Looking at the same last few years, the cost of electricity from natural gas has been just over $26 per megawatt-hour, while coal has been just under $24 per megawatt hour. During this year (2018), natural gas prices will fall about 2% while coal prices will increase 5%. The gap between the pricing of coal and gas have become too small to support new construction of coal plants. During the upcoming years, there will continue to be more coal plants retiring, and new natural gas plants coming online.
Coal vs Natural Gas Carbon Emissions
Both coal and natural gas combustion produces carbon emission, primarily carbon dioxide. So many ask, what is the cleanest burning fossil fuel? The answer is clearly natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), coal emits between 206 and 229 Lbs of CO2 per million BTU of energy, depending on the type of coal. On the other hand, natural gas only emits 117 Lbs of CO2 per million BTU. This means that burning natural gas to make electricity releases about 46% less carbon dioxide than does coal. Due to this difference in CO2 emissions, The EIA noted that the recent boom in natural gas has resulted in a 13% reduction of CO2 emissions since 2005.
As carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas and the primary marker for our carbon footprint, this is a very positive movement in the right direction. It is significant to note that CO2 in the atmosphere can last for 200 years. The sooner coal can be retired and substituted for alternatives with less carbon dioxide emissions, such as natural gas, the better.
Coal vs Natural Gas Environmental Impact
A more complete look of the environmental impact of coal vs natural gas is merited. Simply looking at CO2 emissions does not tell the whole story. Another major component to both coal and natural gas is methane release into the atmosphere. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas over a 100-year period.
Each year, coal mines release about 2.7 MMT (million metric tons) of methane into the atmosphere. According to a recent study by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), natural gas production releases about 13 MMT into the atmosphere. So how do you balance these two factors, that natural gas emits less CO2 than coal, but releases more methane than coal?
According to the Princeton University, it turns out that if 3.2% of natural gas production leaks into the atmosphere, then natural gas will be at par with coal in greenhouse gases. The EDF study mentioned earlier found that currently about 2.3% of natural gas leaks into the atmosphere. So natural gas is the winner, a cleaner and greener alternative to coal.
This is not the end of the story for natural gas. Many things can be done to reduce methane leaks significantly, at no cost! Please read this article on cutting natural gas methane leaks (link to article) for an in-depth look at what can be done. The short of it is, better natural gas pipeline maintenance and natural gas facilities maintenance will have a huge impact on making natural gas even cleaner and more eco-friendly.
Milestone Companies offers exactly these services, to assist natural gas providers in maintaining their gas infrastructure, saving money and saving the environment. We look forward with anticipation as the US advances to more eco-friendly energy solutions, including simple but effective steps like better natural gas infrastructure maintenance.