Biogas and Natural Gas

For a very long time, natural gas was considered one of the most attractive sources of electricity, heating fuel and automotive combustibles. Among the other fossil fuels — petroleum and coal e.g. — it emits the lowest carbon output. Less costly overall, natural gas is widely available, enjoying a far-flung and accessible pipeline and transportation network. As biogas rises to prominence as a renewable natural gas, its future alongside natural gas from geological sources is increasingly promising.

A History of Natural Gas

While awareness of natural gas extends back thousands of years, its application as a commercial energy source has a much shorter history. In Europe and the U.S., natural gas from coal was first used to ignite street lamps in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 1821 saw the first workable natural gas well in upstate New York. Shortly thereafter, the first natural gas distribution enterprise was started in the same place. Nearly 15 years later, the city of Philadelphia inaugurated the first publicly owned natural gas distributor, which remains in business today. Public gas companies now number over 900 in the U.S.

For the first 50 years of natural gas sales, the fuel was employed almost exclusively for lighting. Yet, as a new century approached, the Bunsen burner demonstrated natural gas as a heat producer. This development prompted the construction of pipelines to better move the product from its sources to its consumers. In a short time, natural gas was powering home appliances, boilers and industrial plants. Over half the energy used by households, and over 40 percent used by industry, is owed to natural gas. Almost all of the natural gas at work in the U.S. originates in North America.

Is Natural Gas Regulated?

The Natural Gas Act was passed by Congress in 1938 out of a concern that, since the pipelines transcended state lines, the federal government had an interest in supressing any monopolistic behaviors by distributors. With the advent of the federal Department of Energy in 1977, regulatory authority over sales, transport and rate-setting by providers was consolidated into this new cabinet-level department. The following decade, however, gave rise to a trend to deregulate the natural gas industry. The Natural Gas Wellhead Decontrol Act of 1989, for instance, put price-setting at the wellhead — in essence, the extraction point — beyond the reach of regulators which, at any rate, maintain jurisdiction over interstate pipelines.

How Is Natural Gas Used Today?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the lion’s share of natural gas — 36 percent — goes toward the generation of electrical power. Briefly, the gas is pumped underground directly to the utility which then burns it to boil water and produce steam. The steam, in turn, moves the turbines of a generator. The spinning momentum of the magnets in the generator subsequently create electricity. Still, 33 percent of natural gas goes to power industrial machinery; 16 percent serves to heat homes and residential water supplies; 11 percent does likewise for commercial buildings; and three percent is used for cars, buses and trucks as fuel.

Are There Drawbacks to Natural Gas?

Although geological natural gas yields lower carbon emissions than oil or coal — around 40 percent lower — it still gives off significant greenhouse gases when compared to renewable sources of energy. That said, the natural gas obtained from the earth’s crust is decidedly non-renewable. Like its fellow fossil fuels, it requires millennia if not longer to fully replenish itself. New deposits are discovered but energy demands grow every day. Natural gas is expensive to process and its infrastructure is costly to maintain. Thus, it serves a valuable purpose but for how long?

Is Biogas the Solution?

Biogas is the product of anaerobic digestion, that is the chemical disintegration of organic matter when oxygen is not available. This multi-phased process concludes with the release of gas containing methane, carbon dioxide and several trace compounds. Biogas, that is. Biogas and natural gas have much in common. The primary chemical compound in each is methane. They both need processing and upgrading to make them safe and efficient for commercial storage and transport. In addition, their practical applications are identical: generating electricity, providing heat and fueling vehicles.

There are also clear divergences between biogas and natural gas. First of all, biogas is profoundly renewable. Organic matter can range from the clippings of a freshly cut lawn to horse manure; from the food scraps that go in the garbage to various forms of roadkill. Scientists are even collecting biogas drought-resistant tropical plants like Napier grass. It is hard to imagine running out of these organic materials. Also, biogas and biofuel are carbon neutral since their emissions would end up in the atmosphere one way or the other. In these ways, napier grass biogas, wastewater biogas and other manifestations improve upon fossil fuel natural gas.

In Summary

Natural gas has proved to be a boon in terms of energy independence and availability. Natural gas biogas does the same while reducing greenhouse emissions and promising unlimited supply.


AirFacts Magazine