Considering the Role of Natural Gas in the Deep Decarbonization of the U.S. Electricity Sector. Natural Gas and the Evolving U.S. Power Sector Monograph Series: Number 2

Wesley Cole, Ross Beppler, Owen Zinaman, Jeffrey Logan

Research output: NRELTechnical Report


Natural gas generation in the U.S. electricity sector has grown substantially in recent years, while the sector's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have generally declined. This relationship highlights the concept of natural gas as a potential enabler of a transition to a lower-carbon future. This work considers that concept by using the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Renewable Energy Deployment System (ReEDS) model. ReEDS is a long-term capacity expansion model of the U.S. electricity sector. We examine the role of natural gas within the ReEDS modeling framework as increasingly strict carbon emission targets are imposed on the electricity sector. In addition to various natural gas price futures, we also consider scenarios that emphasize a low-carbon technology in order to better understand the role of natural gas if that low-carbon technology shows particular promise. Specifically, we consider scenarios with high amounts of energy efficiency (EE), low nuclear power costs, low renewable energy (RE) costs, and low carbon capture and storage (CCS) costs. Within these scenarios we find that requiring the electricity sector to lower CO2 emissions over time increases near-to-mid-term (through 2030) natural gas generation (see Figure 1 - left). The long-term (2050) role of natural gas generation in the electricity sector is dependent on the level of CO2 emission reduction required. Moderate reductions in long-term CO2 emissions have relatively little impact on long-term natural gas generation, while more stringent CO2 emission limits lower long-term natural gas generation (see Figure 1 - right). More stringent carbon targets also impact other generating technologies, with the scenarios considered here seeing significant decreases in coal generation, and new capacity of nuclear and renewable energy technologies over time. Figure 1 also demonstrates the role of natural gas in the context of scenarios where a specific low-carbon technology is advantaged. In 2030, natural gas generation in the technology scenarios is quite similar to that in the reference scenarios, indicating relatively little change in the role of natural gas in the near-to-mid-term due to advancements in those technology areas. The 2050 natural gas generation shows more significant differences, suggesting that technology advancements will likely have substantial impacts on the role of natural gas in the longer-term timeframe. Natural gas generation differences are most strongly driven by alternative natural gas price trajectories--changes in natural gas generation in the Low NG Price and High NG Price scenarios are much larger than in any other scenario in both the 2030 and 2050 timeframes. The only low-carbon technology scenarios that showed any increase in long-term natural gas generation relative to the reference case were the Low CCS cost scenarios. Carbon capture and storage technology costs are currently high, but have the potential to allow fossil fuels to play a larger role in low-carbon grid. This work considers three CCS cost trajectories for natural gas and coal generators: a baseline trajectory and two lower cost trajectories where CO2 capture costs reach $40/metric ton and $10/metric ton, respectively. We find that in the context of the ReEDS model and with these assumed cost trajectories, CCS can increase the long-term natural gas generation under a low carbon target (see Figure 2). Under less stringent carbon targets we do not see ReEDS electing to use CCS as part of its electricity generating portfolio for the scenarios considered in this work.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages44
StatePublished - 2016

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/TP-6A50-64654


  • capacity expansion
  • decarbonization
  • natural gas
  • power systems
  • ReEDS


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