The Quiet Revolution Behind Your Light Switch

Growing use of natural gas for power generation is good news for cleaner energy, and the result is one of the greatest untold environmental stories of our time: U.S. power sector carbon emissions have been reduced to 1994 levels, and carbon emissions per capita have dropped to levels not seen since President Eisenhower left office in 1961.

Similarly, emissions of sulfur dioxide and smog-forming nitrogen oxide have been reduced by more than two thirds over the past two decades. Nearly half of this reduction took place from just 2008 to 2010. This is real progress that's happening now, and it's due largely to power companies across the country embracing cleaner-burning natural gas.

As a nation we're concerned with protecting our environment, while also keeping our economy strong and enjoying the comforts of modern living. We don't spend a lot of time thinking about the energy that makes all of this possible. Why get into the nitty-gritty details of power generation and all that it takes to make the simple act of flipping a switch deliver the light and power that we rely upon?

There's a great story to tell, though. President Obama routinely highlights the many benefits that safely and responsibly produced natural gas is bringing to our country, including the reduction of greenhouse gases. Given all the discussion about natural gas in recent years among our nation's leaders in government, industry and academia, we are now asking everyday Americans to join them and really think about their energy choices. And when people do that, they will see that natural gas is improving our environment, growing our economy and enhancing our energy security.

The discovery of vast domestic supplies of shale gas, and the innovative technologies that are safely developing it, have changed the energy game in a lasting way. In just a handful of years, the United States has become the world's largest producer of natural gas, and we now have enough of this clean, domestic resource to power our nation for generations.

Encouraged by America's shale gas abundance and low cost, electric utilities across the country are diversifying their power portfolios to include more natural gas. Natural gas now accounts for about 30 percent of the U.S. power market, and that will only increase.

Southern Company, the fourth largest electric utility in the U.S., has tripled its use of natural gas in recent years. Today, natural gas makes up about 45 percent of its power mix, making Southern Company the third largest user of natural gas among U.S. electric utilities.

Southern's Georgia Power is replacing older units with three 840-megawatt natural gas units that will power the equivalent of 625,000 homes, or more than three times the number of households in the city of Atlanta. Southern Company says this upgrade will reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 95 percent, sulfur dioxide emissions by 99 percent, eliminate mercury emissions and cut carbon emissions in half.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest public power utility in the country, serves nine million people across seven states. Just two years ago, natural gas was between three percent and five percent of TVA's total fuel mix. According to TVA, in fiscal 2012 this figure jumped to 20 percent and it continues to rise.

Renewable energy also benefits from the expansion of natural gas use. In Emporia, Kansas, Westar is pairing four gas turbines with 300 megawatts of wind capacity, and Florida Power & Light has built the world's first hybrid natural gas/solar power plant.

Energy from America means jobs for Americans--nearly three million jobs are supported by natural gas. And, the typical hourly wage in our industry is north of $23--well above the national average. Abundant natural gas benefits every sector of our economy that plugs in and powers up.

The American Chemistry Council has identified 124 investment projects valued at $83 billion since 2010 in which U.S. production is expanding in that sector thanks to abundant and affordable natural gas. And, a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the National Association of Manufacturers is similarly bullish: Projecting one million more U.S. manufacturing jobs by 2025 thanks to our nation's shale gas windfall.

For most of the country the discussion has shifted. Whether it's job creation and economic growth or emissions reductions and energy security, it's no longer a matter of will we or won't we develop and use this resource, but how will we make the most of this huge opportunity. Something to think about next time you flip the light switch.