By Ernest J. Moniz
Professor of Physics, Cecil & Ida Green Distinguished Professor - MIT, USA
The boom in natural gas production in the United States, principally because of the technological developments for exploiting “unconventional” shale resources, has been an energy gamechanger. Compared with other fossil fuels, natural gas burns cleanly and, because of both the molecular structure of methane and the high efficiency of natural gas power plants, emits much less carbon dioxide per unit of output. These plants have low capital costs and, because natural gas power plants can ramp their output quickly, they can serve as an essential complement to inherently variable renewable sources, such as wind and solar – this is important for maintaining reliability and stability of the electricity system when there is large renewable deployment.
When used directly for heating and appliances in commercial and residential building, natural gas has a much higher overall efficiency and lower emissions than does electricity generated by other fossil fuels. Compressed natural gas vehicles are cleaner and less carbon-emitting than those fueled by petroleum. For all of these reasons, natural gas is now viewed as a crucial bridge to a very low carbon future (see an extensive MIT report on The Future of Natural Gas at web.mit.edu/mitei/). It is easy to understand why the International Energy Agency in Paris issued its 2011 report The Golden Age of Gas and predicts a substantial increase in natural gas use in both developed and developing economies.
Natural gas is also important for industry, both as a heat source and as a petrochemical feedstock. Indeed the newfound availability of ample natural gas at reasonable cost is leading to a renewal of manufacturing in the United States. The talk is now of exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a valuable commodity rather than becoming reliant on an increasing stream of expensive imports.
The discovery of significant natural gas resources under the waters of the eastern Mediterranean holds the promise of a similar energy gamechanging experience for Cyprus and some of its neighbors. Indeed, the discovery of these resources and of others, including bountiful shale gas, in consuming countries may over time substantially alter the global geopolitics not only of natural gas but of energy supply more broadly. Because of the expense and challenge of moving natural gas over long distances, whether by pipes that cross multiple borders or by LNG tankers, the availability of ample nearby resources should be a major benefit to the economy, security and environment of Cyprus.
Precisely because natural gas is so flexible and clean in its use – electricity, industry, home heating and appliances, transportation – integrated planning of the entire energy system is important at an early stage. The recent Cyprus Institute workshop on the future energy system for Cyprus is a good start. Having had the privilege to help establish the Institute and its Center for Energy, Environment and Water with a commitment to public service, I am pleased to see the original vision being fulfilled: bringing science and technology and objective analysis to bear on important challenges facing Cyprus and the surrounding region.
Ernest J. Moniz is the 'Cecil and Ida Green Distinguished Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems' at MIT, Director of MIT's Energy Initiative and 2008 Awardee of the Grand Cross of the Order of Makarios III