How do natural gas power plants work?

How do natural gas power plants work?

For the majority of humans on this planet, power plants give us access to things like lights, toaster ovens, cell phone chargers, and anything else we power with electricity. According to a recent report from GE, there are roughly 62,500 power plants operating around the world today.1 That’s a whole bunch, but how many of those plants are powered by natural gas, and how might that impact us?

In this article, we’ll discuss natural gas power plants, how they differ from other power plants, how they work, and the potential impact they could have on our planet.

What are power plants, and how do they work?

A power plant (also known as a power station, generating station, or generating plant) is a facility that various companies and organizations use to generate electricity and distribute it to an area or location.2

Here’s a quick overview of how most power plants work:

  1. Some form of fuel is brought into the power plant.
  2. The fuel is placed in a giant furnace and burned at a very high temperature.
  3. The burning fuel generates heat.
  4. The heat rises into pipes that contain cold water.
  5. When hot air combines with cold water, they create steam.
  6. The steam is directed into a device called a turbine, causing it to spin and generate energy.
  7. The energy from the turbine goes into a generator that converts the energy to electricity.
  8. The generator sends electricity to large, power conducting structures called transformers.
  9. The transformers distribute the electricity to a targeted area.3

What is the difference between a natural gas power plant and any other power plant?

The majority of power plants use unsustainable fossil fuels to generate heat. Burning fuels such as coal or oil create a air pollution that is harmful to the environment and the earth’s inhabitants (that’s us).4

Though we rely heavily on electricity and the benefits it provides to our homes (air regulation, light, access to Instagram), the method by which we obtain that energy isn’t the greatest way to thank mother nature for everything she gives us.

The good news is that some brilliant people have started working on this problem (scientists, am I right?) and created a plant model that allows for a natural gas fuel source as opposed to relying on fossil fuels to power the plant. They call them natural gas power plants or gas-fired power plants.

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How do natural gas power plants work?

A natural gas power plant works similarly to a traditional thermal power plant, except it burns natural gas instead of fossil fuels, like coal, to generate electricity.5

How do natural gas power plants impact the environment?

Though it’s still considered a fossil fuel, natural gas power stations produce significantly less carbon dioxide in the air, a considerable contributor to air pollutants. In fact, according to a study done by the Argonne National Laboratory, “Natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) when combusted in a new, efficient natural gas power plant compared with emissions from a typical new coal plant.”6

So what’s the issue? Why not convert all power plants to natural gas and give my poor lungs a break?

Oddly enough, the biggest problem is transportation. Natural gas has to be removed from the earth by pretty large drills. Then it has to be safely transported to areas where it can be extracted. Because natural gas is relatively volatile, underground pipes are constructed to transport the gas from the reserve.

Though most governments and organizations have stringent precautions when it comes to the transportation of natural gas, the process isn’t perfect, and methane—the main ingredient of natural gas—can and does leak at various points. Even more disconcerting is that the leaked methane has a huge impact on emissions by itself and lasts longer in the air than CO2 alone.7

Though it’s a step toward attempting to find solutions to abundant greenhouse emissions, is it the right one to make? The long-term impacts of methane in the air carry significant risks, and prolonged inefficiencies may cause more harm than carbon emissions long-term. But human civilization has a history of prevailing, so maybe our those brilliant scientists and engineers will come up with a way to make the transportation of natural gas more efficient and safe.

Also, keep in mind that it’s not just up to the educated. While those scientists, engineers, government officials, and physicists puzzle out a long-term solution for greenhouse emissions, why not take action today and do all we can to improve the quality of our air now?

What can I do to reduce greenhouse emissions in my area?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Talk about it
  • Carpool
  • Ride your bike
  • Take public transportation
  • Work from home
  • Adjust your thermostat
  • Turn off your lights
  • Unplug your chargers
  • Hang your clothes to dry
  • Invest in energy-efficient products
  • Invest in eco-friendly products
  • Plant a tree
  • Plant a garden
  • Compost
  • Get a home energy audit
  • Go solar

Endnotes:

  1. Evans, Peter C., and Annunziata, Marco. Industrial Internet: Pushing the Boundaries of Minds and Machines. GE, November 15, 2012.
  2. Nag, P. K. Power Plant Engineering. Tata McGraw-Hill Education, 2002.
  3. “How Gas Turbine Power Plants Work.” The U.S. Department of Energy. Fossil Energy Office of Communications. Updated July 08, 2009. Accessed December 17, 2019.
  4. “The Hidden Costs of Fossil Fuels.” Union of Concerned Scientists. July 15, 2008. Updated Aug 30, 2016. Accessed December 17, 2019.
  5. “Natural gas-fired reciprocating engines are being deployed more to balance renewables.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. Today in Energy. February 19, 2019. Accessed December 17, 2019.
  6. “Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas.” Union of Concerned Scientists. June 19, 2014. Accessed December 17, 2019.
  7. “Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure.” Alvareza, Ramón A., Pacalab, Stephen W., Winebrakec, James J., Chameidesd, William L., and Hamburge, Steven P. Environmental Defense Fund. February 13, 2012

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