The US Department of Energy (DOE) announced two items in the last week that, while not related, could both spell large changes in the US energy future and create huge boon to the natural gas industry, if they pan out.
The first is an announcement on Wednesday that the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has developed a method of freezing natural gas which could both lower the cost of transportation of natural gas and allow access to vast amounts of the world's gas resources. NETL has created a special nozzle technology that rapidly traps natural gas in ice to form methane hydrate -- a process that also occurs in nature, and has foiled some of BP's attempts to plug the Deepwater Horizon well permanently. The technology requires far less pressure and cooling than the creation of liquefied natural gas (LNG) or compressed natural gas (CNG), and, reportedly, forms hydrates in minutes, compared to the current batch process that can take hours or days. NETL researches believe the new process will significantly reduce production, transportation and storage costs associated with current LNG and CNG processes and, potentially allow recovery of natural gas from hydrate deposits in the deep ocean and arctic permafrost. The announcement reports that these deposits are estimated to contain more organic carbon than the rest of the world's fossil fuel reservoirs combined. Of course, the politics of pursuing those deposits are likely to be dicey, given that some would argue that carbon is better left in a frozen state, rather than released into the atmosphere. The announcement does not indicate whether the technology has been tested at any sort of scale, nor a timetable for when it might be rolled out.
The second is an announcement in the Federal Register August 20th, reported by ClimateWire today, that the DOE is considering revising its energy efficiency calculations to take into account how the electricity powering large appliances like household water heaters is produced. By using a full-fuel-cycle (FFC) approach, the DOE, working with the Federal Trade Commission, would include the point-of-use energy, plus the energy consumed in extracting, processing and transporting the fuels source, plus the energy losses associated with the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity. This information would then be provided to the public in enhanced Energy star labels. In 2005, the National Academy of Science recommended that DOE consider moving to use of an FFC approach for assessment of all energy and environmental impacts, especially levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and to provide the information learned to the public through labels and other means -- DOE says in its announcement that it is working to implement this recommendation.
As ClimateWire highlights, because about half of the country's electricity comes from coal-powered generation, natural gas proponents argue that a switch to FFC measurements will help them, by forcing consumers and utilities to look closer at the differences in fuel sources and efficiency of energy generation. DOE is requesting comments on the models and programs used to make these proposed calculations, but if they are implemented, FFC may become the DOE's approach of choice in other areas, too.