New Study: Natural gas-fired power plants cleaner than coal-fired plants

January 9, 2014

Jan. 9, 2014                                                  Joost de Gouw

Natural gas combined with new technology is helping power plants create more energy and at the same time release less greenhouse gases than coal-fired power plants do, according to a joint study from CU-Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The emissions of CO2, sulfur and nitrogen oxide have dropped significantly in the past decade, says atmospheric scientist and lead author Joost de Gouw (YOOST D-GOW).

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New Study: Natural gas-fired power plants cleaner than coal-fired plants

Jan. 9, 2014                                                  Joost de Gouw

Natural gas combined with new technology is helping power plants create more energy and at the same time release less greenhouse gases than coal-fired power plants do, according to a joint study from CU-Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The emissions of CO2, sulfur and nitrogen oxide have dropped significantly in the past decade, says atmospheric scientist and lead author Joost de Gouw (YOOST D-GOW).

CUT 1 “Over the past 10 years or so a much larger fraction of our electric power is now generated from natural gas with combined cycle technology. (:10) And because these plants are more efficient and are cleaner the emissions of CO2 have come down by 23 percent, the emissions of nitrogen oxides have come down 40 percent and the emissions of sulfur dioxide from power plants have come down 44 percent.” (:30) 

            Since 1997 electric energy produced from coal has dropped from 83 percent to 59 percent, replaced by natural gas. And the biggest change in producing less greenhouse gases is the creation of what is called “combined cycle” natural gas power plants,1 says de Gouw. The process uses the exhaust of one heat engine as the heat source for another, thus extracting more useful energy from the heat and increasing the systems overall efficiency.

CUT 2 “We were surprised to see how rapidly these new power plants that use natural gas and combined cycle technology have come online and also how relatively clean they are. (:14)

Not only does the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from power plants help slow climate change but it also helps people to breathe healthier air, says de Gouw. Nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory disease.

CUT 3 “These changes have benefits for climate change but also for air quality. Ozone and fine particles that are formed from nitrogen oxides and sulfur emissions are harmful to our health. So these are very positive changes.” (:18)

De Gouw says the new study is limited to pollutants emitted during energy production and measured at stacks. It does not address levels of greenhouse gases and other pollutants that leak into the atmosphere during fuel extraction. He says his colleagues are actively looking at the impact of natural gas extraction on air quality but there are no final answers yet.  

CUT 4 “So in Colorado and elsewhere there is much concern about the environmental effects of natural gas production and we are actually looking at those but this study looks at the environmental effects of the use of natural gas. (:16) And when the gas is used for electric power generation there are actually significant benefits and those need to be weighed against the potential disadvantages of the production of gas.” (:30) 

De Gouw says it’s important to investigate the total atmospheric consequences of shifting energy use. To do that, he says scientists need to continue collecting data from all aspects of energy exploration, production and use.

 

-CU-

 

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