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Published on December 12th, 2017 | by George Harvey

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A Hand Writing on the Wall for Natural Gas

December 12th, 2017 by  


Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt, 1635

We have seen the fall of coal. The Dow Jones Coal Index, which stood at over 723 at its high in 2008, was down over 94% to 41.36 on December 8. Just as telling, all of the companies that were its components in 2008 have disappeared. There is now only one company in the index, and it is new, cobbled together out of the wreckage of those that once were.

Now, we are seeing natural gas under a similar existential threat. The trend has been getting increasingly clear for a while. Though the media has almost entirely missed it, things now have seem to have got to an alarming state.

GE’s recently announced global layoffs in its power division, in which it is letting 12,000 people go, are quite possibly just the first sign in the broad media of events to come. We had seen the blame for the demise of coal put primarily on low-cost natural gas, and secondarily on renewable power. Now GE has itself put the blame for its layoffs among workers making gas turbines on low-cost solar, wind power, and batteries.

The EIA has a publication, Electric Power Monthly, in which generating data is tracked. Anyone watching the numbers in chapter 1.1, “Net Generation by Energy Source,” can see the month-by-month development of growth or decline of generating technologies. For those watching the numbers, it is important to remember that demand is seasonal. The proper comparison for growth is not one month to the next, but one month to the same month of the previous year, or a longer time frame versus the same time frame of the previous year.

We have seen a steady growth of natural gas generation on this basis for quite a while. That is what happened, until September of 2016, when there was almost no growth. But that was the last month in which natural gas generation exceeded what it had been for the same month of the previous year. Since September 2016, every single month has seen a decline in generation from natural gas, compared to the same month in the previous year. (Visit this EIA webpage and look near the bottom of the spreadsheet.)

And this is not just a matter of the industry not growing. It has been in consistent decline, month after month. And, overall, the average growth has been nearly -10%.

Try taking that to a bank and see what your loan rate is.

This is not some mere blip. And because it is being driven by technologies with costs and prices that are projected to continue to decline, I would conclude that the fall of natural gas it is quite probably permanent.

There is another issue that readers should consider. After a couple of good years of growth in renewable power generation, natural gas generating capacity actually has been growing more robustly, having contributed over 53% of capacity growth this year according to the FERC Energy Infrastructure Update for October 2017. (Visit this FERC report and go to page 5.)

This may not be good news for natural gas. In fact, it may be quite the reverse. Those natural gas plants were ordered during years of rapid growth in demand for natural gas generation, but they are coming at the very time production from natural gas is declining. This means that the plants are operating at declining capacity factors, making them less profitable to run.

The actual production of natural gas itself is increasing in the US, but this is not because of an increase in domestic use. The notable increase is in exports. And this brings us back to GE. The GE layoffs are not in US facilities. They are overseas. They are where natural gas produced in the US is increasingly headed.

The news looks grim for the polluters. It is not just increasingly obvious that their products are killing people and causing climate change, for which they might one day be held accountable. They are being priced out of the market by far more benign technologies. A hand appears to be writing on the wall for natural gas.

By the way, what the hand in the Bible wrote on the wall was “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin.” It has been taken to mean, “God has numbered the days of your realm and is bringing it to an end. You have been weighed and found wanting. Your possessions are to be divided and given to the Persians.”


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About the Author

A retired computer engineer, George Harvey researches and writes on energy and climate change, maintains a daily blog (geoharvey.com), and has a weekly hour-long TV show, Energy Week with George Harvey and Tom Finnell. In addition to those found at CleanTechnica, many of his articles can be found at greenenergytimes.org.



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