Plenty of Natural Gas to Go Around—It Just Needs a Market

Demand growth for natural gas for power generation may have slowed in the U.S., as renewable resources continue to take market share. With U.S. production continuing to hit record highs, and new gas-fired plants more efficient than ever, finding a home for that gas means looking at new markets, including liquefied natural gas exports.

The global use of natural gas for power generation has shown steady and at times spectacular growth over the past two decades. The International Energy Agency (IEA) earlier this year released data, in what it calls the group’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), that showed gas-fired generation worldwide increased about 118% from 2000 through 2017, from 2,753 TWh in 2000 to 5,996 TWh in 2017.

Recent growth has been led by China, India, Southeast Asia, and the European Union (EU), with the IEA noting gas generation growth in the EU occurred as low gas prices brought favorable economics compared to coal. Gas also benefited from the EU Emissions Trading System carbon price for coal, and due to only moderate growth in renewables across Europe.

U.S. growth in gas demand has slowed, though, for many reasons. Gas generation has benefited as coal and nuclear power plants have been retired, but the advent of renewable energy resources such as solar, wind, and battery storage, is taking market share from gas.

“That’s probably the trend, renewables taking market share, especially when they’re at their peak, taking the baseload during the day when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, similar to what we’re seeing in California,” said Jonathan Lee, senior energy market intelligence manager with ENGIE Insight in Spokane, Washington, in an interview with POWER. “States are upping their renewable targets.”

1. The Thomas C. Ferguson Power Plant near Horseshoe Bay, Texas, came online in 2014, replacing another gas-fired facility at the site. The 540-MW plant features two General Electric 7FA gas turbines, offering more than 59% efficiency in combined cycle operation. Courtesy: Larry D. Moore

“The story that we have is that from a domestic prospective for demand, there is not much growth left,” Matthew Hoza, manager of Energy Analysis for Lakewood, Colorado-based BTU Analytics, told POWER. “Power plants are more and more efficient. You compare heat rates of power plants today versus heat rates from power plants five years ago, and we’re using less natural gas. We’re expecting to see more gas-on-gas competition, pushing your less-efficient baseload plants out of the supply stack.” That’s already happened in some areas, such as with the Thomas C. Ferguson Power Plant (Figure 1) near Horseshoe Bay, Texas, where a new 540-MW combined cycle plant replaced a 40-year-old gas-fired plant in 2014.

Hoza continued: “In our minds, the buildout of renewables is going to be a net negative for natural gas. We’re not going to wake up and overnight see that the whole natural gas market is changed, but incrementally, bit by bit, renewables are stealing natural gas market share. The bulk of demand growth will come from exports of LNG [liquefied natural gas]. That is the biggest source of growth that we see.”

Where are those exports headed? To countries where gas-fired generation is increasing, including China, India, and Southeast Asia, where a rise in electricity demand is coming at the same time those regions enact measures to reduce air pollution.

Rob Allerman, senior director of Power Analytics at PRT/Drillinginfo, which provides forecasts for energy companies, said the U.S. has plenty of natural gas supply, but domestic demand is not keeping up. He, like Hoza, told POWER that growth in gas demand “is going to be exports of gas out of North America. That will help alleviate the excess supply situation that we have.”

And what a supply. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that U.S. production topped 89.6 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2018, a 12% increase over 2017 levels. EIA forecasts that production will average 90.2 Bcf/d in 2019, and 92.1 Bcf/d in 2020.

New U.S. Power Installations

Though domestic power demand growth has slowed, new natural gas-fired plants are being built, particularly in areas where gas is readily available due to proximity to existing oil and gas fields. The EIA earlier this year said natural gas, wind, and solar power will lead new installations of generation capacity in the U.S. in 2019. The EIA in a January report said the U.S. electric power sector will add 23.7 GW of new generation capacity this year, with 8.3 GW of capacity scheduled to be retired. The agency said utility-scale capacity growth will be led by wind (46%), followed by natural gas (34%) and solar (18%).

2. This drilling site is in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, in the Marcellus Shale play. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in March reported that output from the state’s wells, primarily in the Marcellus and Utica shales, totaled 1.65 trillion cubic feet in the fourth quarter of 2018, up 17.7% year-over-year. Courtesy: Nicholas A. Tonelli

The EIA said most of the new gas-fired generation capacity will come from combined cycle plants, with an additional 6.1 GW of capacity planned. Another 1.4 GW will come from gas-fired combustion turbines. The EIA said 60% of all new gas-fired capacity will be added in three states—Florida, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania (Figure 2). The latter accounts for about 20% of all U.S. natural gas production, according to the EIA.

New plants are being built with advanced technology as older units retire. California had about 47 GW of natural gas-fired generation capacity in 2013, but has shed about 5 GW of capacity over the past few years. Three large facilities were retired in 2018, all operated by NRG Energy—the 854-MW Encina plant in Carlsbad; the 560-MW Mandalay Generating Station in Oxnard; and the 640-MW Etiwanda plant in Rancho Cucamonga. The Encina plant’s generation is being replaced by the Carlsbad Energy Center, a new simple cycle 530-MW natural gas power plant at the same site.

The Carlsbad plant includes five GE LMS100-PA single-fuel combustion turbine generators. Each unit has inlet evaporative cooling, water injection for NO x control, high-temperature dry intercooler (including a closed-loop cooling system and fin fan cooler), selective catalytic reduction catalyst (including ammonia injection grid and ammonia flow control unit), carbon monoxide catalyst, tempering air fan to permit use of conventional catalyst, and a 90-foot-high stack.

Entergy Louisiana is preparing to bring the 980-MW combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) St. Charles Power Station online this summer in St. Charles Parish. Construction of the plant began in January 2017. The plant will include two Mitsubishi M501GAC gas turbines, two Nooter Eriksen heat recovery steam generators, and a Toshiba steam turbine and generator in 2×1 CCGT configuration.

Entergy Texas has broken ground on a 993-MW gas turbine combined cycle power plant in Southeast Texas, with similar technology to the Louisiana plant. The facility, known as the Montgomery County Power Station (MCPS), is close to the 540-MW gas-fired Lewis Creek Power Plant in Willis, Texas, some 50 miles north of Houston. The MCPS is expected online in 2021.

“Southeast Texas is growing, and Entergy Texas needs to invest now to power that growth,” Sallie Rainer, president and CEO of Entergy Texas, said in a statement. “MCPS is a part of our $2 billion investment in infrastructure that will create jobs, spur economic development and serve our customers.”

In Ohio, where gas supply is abundant thanks to nearby production in the Marcellus and Utica shales, Clean Energy Future LLC, a Massachusetts company, is moving ahead with plans for a 945-MW gas-fired plant in Lordstown (the Lordstown Energy Center), a second 940-MW gas plant in Lordstown (the Trumbull Energy Center), and a 955-MW combined cycle plant in the city of Oregon (the Oregon Energy Center). The Oregon plant would be adjacent to the 960-MW Oregon Clean Energy Center that came online in 2018.

In addition, South Field Energy last summer chose engineering firm Bechtel to design and build its $1.3 billion, 1,182-MW South Field Energy combined cycle natural gas plant near Wellsville, Ohio. The plant, which will use two 7HA.02 GE gas turbines, will be owned by an investor group including South Field parent Advanced Power, Kyushu Electric Power, NH-Amundi Asset Management and PIA Investment Management, RS Global Capital Investment (a joint venture between Development Bank of Japan and Showa Shell Sekiyu), Shikoku Electric Power Co., and an affiliate of Bechtel Development. It is scheduled to come online in mid-2021.

3. This is an artist’s rendering of a proposed 830-MW combined cycle plant in Brooke County, West Virginia, a facility that if built would be the first gas-fired baseload plant in the state. Courtesy: Energy Solutions Consortium

And Energy Solutions Consortium (ESC) is developing an 830-MW combined cycle plant (Figure 3) in Brooke County, West Virginia, that would be built at the site of a former coal mine. Though West Virginia, like Pennsylvania and Ohio, has prolific gas production, it has no existing baseload gas-fired power plants.

Then there’s Arizona. The Arizona Corporation Commission earlier this year extended until August 1 a previous order that effectively bans state-regulated power companies from buying or constructing new gas-fired plants with generating capacities of 150 MW or more. The utility panel initially adopted the order in March 2018. It requires utilities to submit detailed studies of energy storage options and petition for approval before developing new gas plants. Arizona is developing more renewable resources as it moves away from fossil fuels. That state also is home to the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, the nation’s largest nuclear plant by generation capacity.

LNG Exports Support Demand

The analysts who spoke with POWER acknowledged that while new gas-fired power plants are being developed, the U.S. still will have an oversupply of gas, and several countries seem willing to pay for U.S. exports of LNG, which for years have struggled to gain government approval.

4. The tanker Asia Vision is loaded with liquefied natural gas (LNG) at the Sabine Pass terminal in Louisiana in February 2016. The cargo was the first shipment of LNG exported from Sabine Pass. Courtesy: Cheniere Energy

That’s changing. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on March 5 approved Venture Global’s Calcasieu Pass export terminal in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, the second export terminal in that state, along with Cheniere Energy’s Sabine Pass terminal (Figure 4), which shipped its first cargo in 2016. Other operating U.S. export terminals are in Cove Point, Maryland, and Kenai, Alaska. Sabine Pass, along with a terminal offshore of Boston, Massachusetts, and another in Freeport, Texas, are authorized to re-export delivered cargoes of LNG.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in February supported a pipeline to supply the Calcasieu Pass facility. The project is one of about a dozen vying to export LNG, which is natural gas chilled to liquid form, then shipped in tankers. Under the order, Venture Global Calcasieu Pass will be able to export up to 1.7 Bcf/d of natural gas as LNG to any countries that do not have a free trade agreement (FTA) with the U.S. and that are not prohibited from trading under U.S. law or policy (known as non-FTA countries).

FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee, whose agency is responsible for authorizing the siting and construction of onshore and near-shore LNG import or export facilities under Section 3 of the Natural Gas Act, in February said about U.S. LNG exports: “No question about it, it’s a top priority of mine and I think my colleagues’ as well.” Chatterjee has said the framework established from FERC’s work on Calcasieu Pass should help the commission more expeditiously process applications.

Said Hoza: “There are three new LNG export terminals coming online this year, and that’s going to add quite a bit of demand.” Added Allerman: “With natural gas, you just keep getting more and more supply. The market will be helped if we can get [exports of] LNG really cranking.”

Saudi Arabia is becoming a major player in LNG as well. Amin H. Nasser, Saudi Aramco’s CEO, in January told Bloomberg TV: “We are in discussions in different countries currently with a lot of partners. We are reviewing these opportunities to make final decisions in terms of investment. A lot of it is in partnerships with leading companies around the world and it is either in gas investment, LNG investment, or both.” Nasser in November said Saudi Arabia plans to invest $150 billion in natural gas in the U.S., Russia, and other regions. Two of the projects the country reportedly is eyeing are Houston-based Tellurian Inc.’s LNG export terminal in Louisiana, and a Sempra Energy LNG export project in Port Arthur, Texas.

Hoza said U.S. gas producers, particularly those in the southern U.S., are looking at sending gas via pipeline to Mexico. Manuel Bartlett, CEO of Mexico’s state-owned power utility CFE, has said his group will renegotiate gas transportation contracts and build new combined cycle power plants. However, Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said he does not want his country to be dependent on imports of U.S. natural gas.

“There are some government regulations [to overcome],” Hoza said. “And they go slower down there, both from a power plant and a pipeline perspective,” in terms of building infrastructure. “We have a ton of [pipeline] capacity to get gas to the U.S.-Mexico border, but it’s not built out on the Mexico side.”

Voters in central Mexico in February approved construction of a gas-fired power plant, one of at least seven projects that have lingered in limbo for years due to local opposition. Obrador said he hopes that vote will spur movement on the other stalled gas projects. Voters backed the $1.3 billion project in Huexca, southeast of Mexico City, but the referendum was contentious. An activist against the plant was killed in a shooting at his home just days before the vote.

While growth in U.S. demand for gas-fired power generation has slowed, it has not stopped. Renewables will continue to take market share, but continued retirements of coal and nuclear plants mean gas will still be needed to supply both baseload and peaking power, backing up solar and wind. Hoza said he expects a big summer for gas demand.

“We’re expecting record levels of power burn [electricity demand from natural gas] this summer. All our models assume normal weather, and just given normal weather we’re expecting an increase,” he said. “The average daily power burn in 2018 was 30 Bcf/d, and we’re expecting [a jump] to 30.8 Bcf/d this year.” ■

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).