The notion that natural gas would serve as a “bridge fuel” to facilitate the transition toward a cleaner energy future from the dominance of fossil fuel consumption in power generation, industrial production, and transportation sectors first was promoted in the 1970s in the wake of the energy crisis. The idea was that natural gas could be used to replace heavier fuels like oil and coal which produce substantially more emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and sulfur oxides (SOx); help countries decrease their dependence on foreign oil (Bordoff, 2019); and buy time until renewable energy could be developed to levels of economic efficiency, scale, and reliability to replace all fossil fuels.
A Bridge Across the Decades
Natural gas substitution of fuel oil in the residential and commercial heating markets proceeded swiftly in the 1970s and 1980s, but fuel switching didn’t get much attention in the power sector until the 1990s, when technological advances in high-efficiency natural gas combustion technologies ushered in a decade of massive investments in power generation along with expansions in natural gas productive capacity and infrastructure needed to meet growing demand.
Over the last three decades (from 1990 until 2018), natural gas has lived up to its promise worldwide. As illustrated in Figure 1 which shows the share of total worldwide electricity production by major fuel and renewable energy generation technologies, natural gas share surged from 15% to 23% while renewables (wind and solar) grew from zero to 7%; whereas, coal held stable at 37% to 38%, hydropower decreased from 18% to 16%, nuclear fell from 17% to 10%, and oil collapsed from 11% to 3% (according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Data and statistics, Electricity). In other words, natural gas and renewable energy have largely taken market share from oil and nuclear generation, but coal generation has held steady.
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