CH4 for a Clean Energy Economy
A simple yet far-reaching proposal
CH4 is methane, and it could be the fuel of choice for a clean energy economy. Methane is widely abundant and clean burning. We can use it to replace coal and petroleum and this would enable society to slash pollution, end wars for oil, bring greenhouse gas emissions under control, invigorate small town economics and spark the next generation of technology development.
CH4 is the simplest of all hydrocarbons and the primary component of natural gas. It is the cleanest and most energy rich of all fossil fuels, but remarkably, methane is also a renewable. Methane can be sourced from farms, landfills and sewage in large quantities. It has also been discovered recently that frozen methane hydrate deposits on the seafloor dwarf all know coal and petroleum reserves combined. There is more than enough methane available from fossil and renewable resources to completely replace all coal and petroleum and never run out.
The recent revolution in shale gas drilling has ignited debate over hydrofracking leading many environmentalists to view natural gas as the latest outrage that must be stopped. While there are many legitimate concerns about specific drilling techniques and the protection of ground water, the ramifications of switching to methane are much bigger than this one issue.
Greens have been promoting a post-‐carbon future where the world is powered by renewables such as wind and solar. In the ‘Solartopia’ vision all coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear are eliminated in favor of a portfolio of renewable technologies, most of which have not come to market yet. Unfortunately for the Greens this vision has not panned out. Electric vehicles have limited applications and wind and solar have been unable to replace coal.
Meanwhile the market has shown that the immediate future belongs to natural gas, and the long term may as well. The shale gas drilling revolution has upended global energy markets and opened our eyes to the massive quantities of methane available. Already the electrical power industry has responded to low gas prices combined with strong emissions regulations by shutting down old coal power plants and replacing them with new natural gas plants. There have been multiple benefits to this transition: first of all clean emissions and secondly, improved technology.
Natural gas has half the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of coal and for the first time in 2012 the USA has actually reduced net GHG emissions year over year. This is a dramatic result that should be more widely celebrated and gives hope that solutions are possible to our ecological problems. Methane is also free of the contaminants found in coal and oil that are the source of much of the world’s pollution. The major categories of pollution are sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, particulates, mercury and other trace metals. CH4 has none of these contaminants, it is simply one carbon atom attached to four hydrogen atoms. Combustion of CH4 yields only CO2 and H2O and spills are non-‐toxic.
Secondly, natural gas turbines are far superior technology compared to old-‐fashioned coal boilers. Turbines are flexible, able to be turned on and off quickly to meet demand. This is a critical feature in improving our electrical grid to support intermittent renewables like wind and solar. Turbines and generators are highly scalable in size ranging from small portable 100kw units up to massive 1GW power plants. This means they can be deployed in a decentralized manner providing greater redundancy, flexibility and robustness to the electrical grid.
CH4 is extremely stable and compressible; it can be transported by pipeline and stored indefinitely in tanks. With refrigeration it can be liquefied enabling excellent energy density. Any car can be converted to run on compressed natural gas (CNG). Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is a suitable fuel for aviation and shipping. CNG vehicles have an excellent safety record, as does ocean transport of LNG. There has never been an environmentally damaging LNG spill. Lack of infrastructure is holding back the transition to natural gas, but the engineering and knowhow is completely established. Transition to methane would spark the next generation of economic growth and technology development.
Pipelines could be filled with both fossil natural gas and methane sourced from farms, biomass, landfills and sewage. A true zero-‐waste policy that embraces waste to energy would lead to a clean up of many of today’s biggest ecological problems.
Livestock waste is a major pollutant, but digesters on farms could transform all of that waste into methane and fertilizer. Garbage with the recyclables removed can be converted into methane, eliminating the need for landfills. Human sewage can also be converted. In every case an ecological liability is transformed into an asset creating win-‐win scenarios for the planet and the economy. Coal and petroleum can be converted into pure methane and the biofuels industry could shift to producing methane over ethanol since methane is much easier to produce and is a superior fuel.
The real game changer for the CH4 scenario would be the harvesting of methane hydrates from the seafloor. These hydrates deposits have only recently been mapped out and they are enormous, far bigger than all known coal and petroleum deposits combined. Many Greens fear that global warming may cause methane hydrates to melt and release huge quantities into the atmosphere triggering a cataclysmic feedback loop of runaway climate change. The best answer to this problem may be to use the methane and leave all the coal and oil in the ground.
Imagine a world where there is no smog from cars or power plants, where boats no longer pollute waterways and there are no oil spills. Where energy is abundant around the world and there is no need to fight wars over dwindling supplies of filthy oil. A world where there is no waste, all materials have value and are cycled into the next process instead of being dumped. We can achieve this vision with CH4 as the global standard for clean fuel.