According to the Energy Information Administration, the world consumed 122,804 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas in 2014. The chart above depicts how this consumption was distributed worldwide. Overall, in 2014, a little over 21% of the world's energy consumption was from natural gas, according to the International Energy Association's 2016 "Key World Statistics" publication (p. 6).
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."
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 29% of all the energy we used came from natural gas in 2015. About 35% of the natural gas we used was for electricity generation (up from 30% in 2014). Another 33% was used for industrial and commercial purposes, and about 17% was used in homes, while 12% was used in commercial buildings. Only 3% was used for transportation.
Natural gas can be used in a 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.
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 Cells.]
Remember that natural gas is mostly methane and that methane is CH4? Ah ha, 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. Click on "Hydrogen Production," then "Processes." Open and read "Natural gas reforming (also called steam methane reforming or SMR)." (And of course, you are encouraged to poke around more on this nifty topic, if you have the time and interest.)
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 23 million Natural Gas Vehicles (NGVs) operating worldwide by January of 2017, including motorcycles, cars, vans, light and heavy duty trucks, buses, lift trucks, locomotives, even ships and ferries. From 1996 to 2016, the number of NGVs has grown by over 2600%! 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 160,000 in 2015 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 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."