Golden age of natural gas: What it means

The potential for a golden age of gas comes along with a big “if” regarding environmental and social impact. The International Energy Agency (IEA)—the “global energy authority”--believes that this age of gas can be golden, and that unconventional gas can be produced in an environmentally acceptable way.

IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven, discusses:The potential for a golden age of gas and its consequences on the industry and society, the challenges of renewable investment and technology, how the U.S. shale boom is reshaping the global economy, Nuclear's contribution to energy security and other critical energy issues facing the world today.

Interview by James Stafford of Oilprice.com 

Oilprice.com: In 2011, the IEA predicted what it called “the golden age of gas,” with gas production rising 50% over the next 25 years. What does this “golden age” mean for coal, oil and nuclear energy—and for renewables? What does it mean for humanity in terms of carbon emissions? Is the natural gas boom lessening the sense of urgency to work towards renewable energy solutions?

IEA: We didn't predict a golden age of gas in 2011, we merely asked a pertinent question: namely, are? And we found that the potential for such a golden age certainly exists, especially given the scale of unconventional gas resources and the advances in technology that allow their extraction. But the potential for a golden age of gas hinges on a big “if,” and we elaborated on this in 2012 in a report called “ Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas”. Exploiting the world's vast resources of unconventional natural gas holds the key to golden age of gas, we said, but for that to happen, governments, industry and other stakeholders must work together to address legitimate public concerns about the associated environmental and social impacts. Fortunately, we believe that unconventional gas can be produced in an environmentally acceptable way.

Under the central scenario of the World Energy Outlook-2013, natural gas production rises to 4.98 trillion cubic meters (tcm) in 2035, up nearly 50 percent from 3.38 tcm in 2011. But we have always said that a golden age of gas does not necessarily imply a golden age for humanity, or for our climate. An expansion of gas use alone is no panacea for climate change. While natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, it is still a fossil fuel. As we have seen in the United States, the drastic increase in shale gas production has caused coal's share of electricity generation to slide. Of course, there is also the possibility that increased use of gas could muscle out low-carbon fuels, such as renewables and nuclear, from the energy mix.

OP: When will we see “the golden age of renewables”?

IEA: Although we have not yet predicted a “golden age” of renewables, the current, rapid growth of renewable power is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak picture of global progress towards a cleaner and more diversified energy mix. Still, the investment case for capital-intensive, low carbon power technologies carries challenges. We need to distinguish between two situations:

  • In emerging economies, renewable power often provides a cost-competitive alternative to new fossil based generation and are perceived as part of the solution to questions of energy supply, diversification, and economic development. In China, for example, efforts to reduce local pollution are stimulating major investments in cleaner energy.
  • By contrast, in stable systems with sluggish demand, no technology is competitive with marginal electricity prices, due to overcapacity. Governments are nervous about increasing investment in low-carbon options which impact on consumer prices, and this is causing policy uncertainty. But long term energy security and environmental goals need to be kept in mind.

The overall outlook for renewable electricity remains positive, even as the outlook can vary strongly by market and region. However, the electricity sector comprises less than 20% of total final energy consumption. The growth of renewables in other sectors such as transport and heat has been more sluggish. For a golden age of renewables to materialize, greater progress is needed in these areas, for example, with the development of advanced biofuels and more policy frameworks for renewable heat.

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