According to the Energy Information Administration, the world consumed more than138,000 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas in 2018. The chart above depicts how this consumption was distributed worldwide. Overall, in 2018, a little over 27% of the world's primary energy consumption was from natural gas, according to BP's 2020 Statistical Review of World Energy.
Regarding future demand, in International Energy Outlook 2016, the Energy Information Administration reports,
By energy source, natural gas accounts for the largest increase in world primary energy consumption...Natural gas remains a key fuel in the electric power sector and industrial sector. In the power sector, natural gas is an attractive choice for new generating plants because of its fuel efficiency. Natural gas also burns cleaner than coal or petroleum products, and as more governments begin implementing national or regional plans to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, they may encourage the use of natural gas to displace more carbon-intensive coal and liquid fuels...Consumption of natural gas increases in every IEO region..
As you might guess (and may recall reading previously), as natural gas becomes a more popular fuel source worldwide, international trade will also increase. As you can see, the U.S., Russia, and China will play major roles in this. As stated in the IEO 2019,
- Asia experiences the greatest growth in global natural gas consumption because the economies of countries such as China and India are rapidly expanding. Non-OECD natural gas demand in Asia increasingly outpaces regional supply, despite relatively large increases in natural gas production in China. As a result, net imports of natural gas to Asia (all countries) more than triple from 2018 to 2050
- Despite strong growth in LNG trade, pipeline flows continue to account for most of the interregional natural gas trade during the projection period as pipeline infrastructure is further developed
- Non-OECD Europe and Eurasia (primarily Russia) remains the largest net exporter of natural gas in 2050, followed by the Middle East. During this time, OECD Europe increases its dependence on Russian pipeline natural gas, and non-OECD Asia imports a growing amount of LNG.
- The Americas grow as a net exporter of natural gas, driven mostly by LNG shipments from the United States, to countries outside the region.
Natural gas is used in many ways, including power generation, residential heating and appliances (cooking, clothes dryers) and in the production of many products.
According to the U.S. EIA, in the United States, about 34% of all the energy we used came from natural gas in 2020. About 38% of the natural gas we used was for electricity generation (up from 30% in 2014). Another 33% was used for industrial purposes, and about 15% was used in homes, while 10% was used in commercial buildings. Only 3% was used for transportation.
Natural gas can be used in several different ways to generate electricity--it may be burned to create steam that turns a turbine (similar to a coal-fired plant) or may be used with a gas turbine, where hot gases from the burning gas turn the turbine (instead of heating steam). Gas turbines may be turned on and off quickly, making them well suited to meet peak load demands. Gas turbines are also used in combined cycle units, where the waste heat from the gas turbine is used to create steam and drive a turbine. These arrangements are much more efficient than steam or gas turbines alone - many combined cycle units approach 60% efficiency, compared to just over 30% for coal and nuclear. Because of its widespread availability and other advantages, natural gas is used for distributed generation--where electricity is generated at or very near the point of use, often a commercial or industrial site.
Natural gas is also used to produce steel, glass, paper, clothing, and brick. Many products use natural gas as a raw material, such as paints, fertilizer, plastics, antifreeze, dyes, photographic film, medicines, and explosives.
In the United States, more than half of the homes use natural gas as their main heating fuel. In our homes we also use it for cooking, water heaters, clothes dryers, and other appliances.
To Read Now
The increasing use of natural gas for electricity generation has been an important development in the global power sector. Though it has been outcompeting coal (for the most part) in the U.S., in some situations and locations, other sources are replacing natural gas, as you will see below.
- Read "Energy Transitions Begin to Leave Out Natural Gas Power" from Power Magazine and "Natural gas prices, not 'war on coal,' were key to coal power decline: study" from Phys.org.
Natural gas is also used in the production of hydrogen to power fuel cells. [A fuel cell converts chemical energy of a fuel (usually hydrogen) and an oxidant into electricity. If you're interested, visit the DOE's Fuel Cell Technologies Office.]
Remember that natural gas is mostly methane and that methane is CH4? Aha, makes sense! Hydrogen is produced from natural gas through a type of thermal process called natural gas reforming.
To Read Now
- Visit the Department of Energy's Fuel Cell Technologies Program. Read "Natural Gas Reforming." (And of course, you are encouraged to poke around more on this nifty topic, if you have the time and interest.)
- When hydrogen is used to generate energy, there are no emissions. However, the production of hydrogen almost always has a carbon footprint. For an overview of the impact of various forms of hydrogen production, read the following sections of "Decarbonized Hydrogen in the US Power and Industrial Sectors: Identifying and Incentivizing Opportunities to Lower Emissions" by Resources for the Future from December 2020. (As always, feel free to read through more of the report. It provides a very comprehensive and well-sourced look at the state of hydrogen production.):
- Key Findings
- Hydrogen Supply - Read everything until Section 2.3.2 Cost and Opportunities for Reduction.
Compressed Natural Gas
In addition to its gas and liquid states, natural gas may also be compressed to be used as a fuel for vehicles. According to NGV Global, there were over 26 million Natural Gas Vehicles (NGVs) operating worldwide by November 2018 (the most recent date data were available for), including motorcycles, cars, vans, light and heavy-duty trucks, buses, lift trucks, locomotives, even ships and ferries. From 1996 to 2018, the number of NGVs has grown by nearly 3,000%! (850,445 vehicles in 1996 and 26,366,422 vehicles in 2018, according to NGV Global.) As you can see in the image below, global growth is driven by the Asia-Pacific region and to a lesser extent, Latin America.
In the United States, however, at 175,000 in 2017 the number of NGVs is small and increasing slowly. Vehicles fueled by natural gas get fewer miles on a tank of fuel and, here, refueling stations are not widely available and new CNG-fueled vehicles are limited. According to the U.S. DOE, the 2016 Chevrolet Impala Bi-Fuel (CNG) is the only new vehicle currently available in the U.S. However, conventional gasoline, and diesel vehicles can be retrofitted for CNG.
When biogas (produced from decomposing organic matter) is processed to purity standards, it is a renewable natural gas (RNG) that can substitute for natural gas as an alternative fuel for natural gas vehicles. In fact, according to the U.S. DOE, "about 60% of the gas used in Sweden's 38,500 natural gas vehicles is RNG. In Germany, 25% of the public compressed natural gas stations dispense 100% RNG. In the United States, biomethane vehicle activities are on a smaller scale."