Is Natural Gas “Clean Energy”?

It’s fair to say natural gas can be called “clean energy.” It can also be called cleaner energy. It really depends on your definition. Let’s take a look at how clean and sustainable natural gas really is.

Is natural gas clean energy?

Everyone has a different definition of “clean energy.” Natural gas has been referred to as a clean energy source, but it’s not entirely clean; however, it’s cleaner than many other options, such as coal and oil. By switching to natural gas from coal or oil, many countries would be able to significantly reduce (not eliminate) their emissions. Because natural gas is cleaner, it is often proposed as a compromise between dirty fossil fuels and renewable sources.

The word “clean” is used to denote different things in the energy community. As an example, “clean” coal isn’t truly clean; it’s just cleaner than regular coal. Natural gas would still be cleaner than “clean” coal, which just uses a variety of strategies to capture or store the greenhouse gasses produced.

Renewable sources still have some issues, in terms of adoption and feasibility. There are still adjustments being made in the sustainability of solar panel construction and the improvements necessary to make the technology more efficient. As sustainable energy does take hold, it’s hoped that the use of natural gas will be reduced.

How clean is natural gas?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas is a relatively clean fuel.  Compared to many of the traditional and plentiful alternatives, natural gas produces fewer greenhouse gasses. 

Relativity is important when talking about what energy is “clean” and what energy isn’t. Natural gas produces about half the emissions of coal. It produces about three-quarters of the emissions of oil. But coal produces a lot of emissions. If you compare natural gas to something like wind power, it would not be considered clean. But because there are so many countries and so many power plants still on coal, natural gas is a better alternative to using extremely polluting materials. 

That being said, natural gas is not a renewable resource — which means even though it is cleaner than other types of energy, it’s still not a sustainable energy source. Eventually, different energy sources will need to be used. For now, natural gas is offered as a superior alternative to fuels such as oil and gas.

Is natural gas a bridge to clean energy?

Because natural gas is so plentiful and readily available, it is seen as a more feasible way to reduce emissions. Communities can switch from coal to natural gas, rather than from coal power to hydropower, and experience a significant reduction in pollution.

But it can also be argued that a reliance on natural gas is discouraging truly sustainable adoption. Natural gas still produces more emissions than operating solar power, wind power, or hydropower farms (although, emissions are produced in the development of these technologies).

Whether natural gas is an effective bridge between “dirty energy” and “clean energy” has been controversial. But it’s not debated that natural gas doesproduce far fewer emissions than comparable amounts of coal and oil. 

The bottom line: Natural gas produces more emissions than either solar power or hydropower. Whether you call natural gas “clean” really depends on your definition of clean. But there are a lot of factors that are at play, such as the energy expenditures required to build solar plants or hydro plants. Compared to dirty fuels such as oil and coal, natural gas is absolutely cleaner— which is why many believe it’s a vital intermediate step between dirty fuels and entirely renewable energy sources.


Natural Gas vs. Coal: Where These Markets Are Headed

Natural gas vs. coal — what are their emissions? What is their market share? And what is the future of natural gas and coal? Both natural gas and coal may be increasing in demand, but natural gas is increasing faster. 

Let’s take a deeper look.

Natural Gas vs. Coal Emissions

Natural gas produces about 50 percent of the emissions of coal. When there is a choice between the two, if reducing emissions is your priority, it’s generally better to choose natural gas. However, coal has made strides in recent years through “clean coal” initiatives. These initiatives do make it easier to capture or store greenhouse gasses, rather than allowing them to impact the environment.

Realistically, adoption between natural gas and coal emissions on a global scale is controlled by the already existing infrastructure. Many developing areas already have coal plants, whereas constructing new natural gas supplies would be difficult. However, constructing natural gas lines is not as difficult as developing new solar, wind, and hydropower farms.

Natural Gas vs. Coal Market Share

The coal mining industry makes about $800 billion a year. Comparatively, the natural gas industry makes about $600 billion.

Globally, electricity generation is still 61.3% fossil fuel. Of that, 35.1% is coal and 23.4% is natural gas. 

So, though natural gas is often seen as the “cleaner” fuel, more coal is being used and produced. And while the growth of the coal market is in decline, natural gas’s growth is accelerating. This makes comparisons between natural gas and coal more complex.

Sustainable energy sources are now being used for 35.2% of the world’s energy and this is also accelerating quickly. While coal currently dominates the market, the market is in the process of moving away from it. But as the developing world grows, entirely moving away from coal may not be achievable.

In terms of growth, sustainable energy will likely eventually outpace both coal and natural gas alike. But how quickly that happens depends on a number of factors and it isn’t likely to eclipse them both combined for some time. Until then, companies, countries, and individuals are going to need to choose their energy sources based on relative levels of accessibility, cost, and environmental harm.

The Future of Natural Gas and Coal

Coal is largely on the decline. Though it is a plentiful resource throughout much of the world, its emissions are too significant. “Clean coal” strategies have bolstered coal and, should the technology improve, could potentially lengthen the viability of coal. But as a whole, coal is getting replaced by more sustainable methods of energy production. It won’t be replaced any time soon, however — it’s still a very easy to use source of energy.

Natural gas demand is growing. Although it is expected to grow more slowly over time, it’s still being embraced as a cleaner alternative to many other fossil fuels. Not only is natural gas cleaner than coal, but there’s also an infrastructure present — unlike many sustainable technologies.

That being said, there are confounding factors. Over the next two decades, the populations of both India and Africa are expected to explode. Africa is expected to double in size over this period. As countries that rely primarily on coal get larger, coal use may go up. India remains extremely dependent on coal for its energy generation. Which energy resource ends up the most popular will depend on how quickly new energy infrastructure is able to be built.

In the next hundred years, we may see both coal and natural gas diminish. For now, coal is seeing a slow decline in demand, while natural gas is seeing an increase.