The United Nations projects the world population to reach 9.7 billion people by the year 2050; the rate of urbanization of the past decade was unprecedented. Mankind’s insatiable demand for energy cannot be overlooked. From 1973 to 2016, the proportion of the world’s energy generated using natural gas increased from 12.1% to 23.2%. Natural gas has always been a huge part of energy generation throughout the years, and there are many diverging opinions of its use. This article will discuss the pros and cons of using natural gas as a means of producing electrical power from an ethical standpoint.
We Want Energy!
Many countries have recently announced a policy shift to increase the use of natural gas for power generation because it is the cleanest fossil fuel. Natural gas is considered environmentally friendly as it emits the lowest greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and NOx, per kWh of energy produced. In addition, combusting natural gas doesn’t produce ash or particulates that can cause health problems. Natural gas is one of the cheapest fossil fuel and highly efficient when used in a combined cycle gas turbine. The introduction of liquefied natural gas resulted in improved storage, enabling it to be economically transported to almost anywhere on the globe.
If natural gas is omitted from the world energy mix, no other power generation source could fill that energy void. Coal-fired power has been notorious for its high CO2 emissions, which contribute heavily to global warming and climate change. Some European countries plan to phase out coal-fired power completely, including France by 2023, the UK by 2025 and Finland by 2030. If we were to completely rely on nuclear power, we have to build approximately one nuclear power station per day for the next 30 years in order to accommodate the growing energy demand. Furthermore, the sole use of nuclear energy would result in significant amount of radioactive waste products that have detrimental effects to the environment. Despite renewables being carbon free, they are not efficient enough and too costly to supply the world energy demand. The increase in the usage of biomass for power generation would likely lead to higher food prices, which in turn may result in higher famine rates in the developing world. In order to ensure a reliable and uninterrupted electrical supply, natural gas has to be included in the world energy mix. Therefore, from a utilitarian perspective, the use of natural gas for power generation brings the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and thus it is ethical.
Natural gas fired power plants can be integrated with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) to reduce CO2 emissions. However, this has not attained high levels of commercial attention due to the high energy penalty from the carbon capture unit. With the recent emergence of technologies such as Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) and Selective-EGR (S-EGR), natural gas fired power plant with CCS could be more feasible.
In 2017, a scientific breakthrough of converting CO2 captured from air into fuel was realized. This technology is powered by renewables and patented as AIR TO FUELS™. When sufficient advancement in renewable energy technologies is achieved, air pollution caused by natural gas power stations could be made reversible through this technology.
We Want Sustainability!
Even though natural gas is regarded as environmentally friendly, it is a fossil fuel that produces CO2 during combustion, which is the root cause of global warming. Rise in sea levels and global average temperature for the past decade were detrimental. The time it would take the planet to recover from the CO2 emissions already put into the atmosphere is estimated at a minimum of hundreds of years, and continuing to burn fossil fuels such as natural gas will only make this worse. Although there are ways to reduce the CO2 released into the atmosphere, such as carbon capture, it would be more effective to invest the money that such schemes would cost into renewables, such as wind or solar, to ensure clean energy for the future.
Transportation of natural gas through land and sea requires expensive pipelines and specialised tanks. Installation of pipes underground is responsible for deforestation due to the long distances that it is required to cover. This is an issue as it creates environmental problems, such as destroying the natural habitat of certain species, causing soil erosion and affecting the water cycle.
Natural gas is also highly combustible. The gas is odourless, colourless and tasteless, which makes it difficult to detect. This means that, should a leak occur, it can be very difficult to locate. A study, based on a methane pipeline explosion in Aliso Canyon, California, in 2010 found that the total amount of methane leaked in a four-month period was equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 600,000 cars. This would have a major contribution towards global warming because methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2.
As professional engineers, we should abide the stand still principle. This states that we must not pass on a poorer environment to the next generation than the one we received from the previous generation. The burning of natural gas is clearly wrong because the CO2 released into the atmosphere will have serious environmental consequences, affecting future generations. This is much greater than the impact that abandoning natural gas will have, making burning them an unethical action.
A Kantianist would argue that the maxim “natural gas should be burned to produce power” being made universal would clearly be unsustainable. The amount of natural gas left in the world at current consumption levels is estimated at 100 years’ worth. If natural gas became the main source of power, this estimate would drop considerably, resulting in an unjust distribution of resources between different generations. This, in addition to the greenhouse gases emitted, would clearly have an adverse effect on the environment, and thus, according to Kantianism, the burning of natural gas is unethical.
We should continue to use natural gas for power generation.