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Natural gas can reduce CO2 emissions from power plants, study shows

Natural gas can reduce CO2 emissions from power plants, study shows

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News & Events - Engineering News

January 14, 2014

With the federal government determined to keep environmental responsibility near the top of its national agenda, new engineering research has found that the recent boom in electricity generated by facilities powered by natural gas is already having an effect on carbon emissions.

According to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, power plants that rely on a combination of natural gas and recycled exhaust heat - known as combined-cycle - produce up to 40 percent less CO2 per kilowatt hour than traditional coal-fired versions. The research, which is due for publication in the January issue of the journal "Earth's Future," also found that these type of power generators release less nitrogen dioxides and sulfur dioxide - two types of greenhouse gases that have been found to worsen air quality.

The engineering resources study, which focused on electric energy produced by the United States between 1997 and 2012, also revealed that the amount of electricity produced by coal-fired plants dropped by 24 percent during that time period - from 83 to 59 percent, while the level of power produced by combined cycle technology rose from zero to 34 percent. And while this apparent shift in the attitude of the energy sector towards power generation may not be the only reason for a reduction in CO2 emissions, it does fit in with a widely-held perception that engineering research into cleaner means of electricity production should be increased.

Lowering the emissions
"Since more and more of our electricity is coming from these cleaner power plants, emissions from the power sector are lower by 20, 30 even 40 percent for some gases since 1997," said lead author Joost de Gouw, an atmospheric scientist with NOAA's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, in a university press release. "That shift in the energy industry meant that power plants, overall, sent 23 percent less CO2 into the atmosphere last year than they would have, had coal been providing about the same fraction of electric power as in 1997."

However, it should be noted that the NOAA research was limited to pollutants emitted during energy production and did not address any that might enter the atmosphere during fuel extraction. With that in mind, the research appears to backup the recent assertion by the Energy Information Agency that replacing coal with natural gas will be a crucial factor in reducing the current level of U.S emissions.

While the results of this engineering research project are certainly welcome, the onus is now on the scientific community to ensure that collecting data on shifting energy use remains an ongoing procedure, especially if it can show that environmental responsibility remains the end goal for all concerned.

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