Evaluating the Climate Effects of Natural Gas Versus Coal Electricity Generation

Monday, 15 December 2014
Xiaochun Zhang1, Nathan Paul Myhrvold2 and Ken Caldeira1, (1)Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington, DC, United States, (2)Intellectual Ventures, Bellevue, WA, United States
Assessing potential climate effects of fossil-fuel electricity generations, especially natural gas versus coal electricity generation is complicated by the large number of factors reported in life cycle assessment studies, compounded by the large number of proposed climate metrics. Thus, there is a need to identify the key factors affecting the climate effects of fossil-fuel electricity generations (especially natural gas and coal based electricity production), and to present these climate effects in as clear and transparent a way as possible. Here, we identify power plant efficiencies and methane emission rates as the factors that explain most of the variance in greenhouse gas emissions by natural gas and coal power plants. Thus, we focus on the roles of these factors in determining the relative merit of natural gas and coal power plants. We develop a simple model with estimating CH4 and CO2 emissions from natural gas and coal power plants and resulting climate effects. Simple underlying physical changes can be obscured by abstract evaluation metrics, thus we base our discussion on temperature changes over time. We find that, during the period of plant operation, if there is substantial natural gas leakage, natural gas plants can produce greater near-term warming than a coal plant with the same power output. However, if leakage rates can be made to be low and efficiency high, natural gas plants can produce some reduction in near-term warming. After several centuries of continuous use, natural gas power plants produce substantial warming, but in most cases substantially less warming than would occur with coal plants.