The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of natural gas. People use it every day to generate heat, cook, and dry clothes, among other things. In fact, in 2021, about half of the homes in the U.S. used natural gas for space and water heating.
Natural gas is also becoming more popular as the country tries to reduce its emissions. Natural gas is the lowest-emitting fossil fuel available, so many municipalities are switching to it in favor of oil.
However, natural gas comes with many risks: it’s dangerous to extract, flammable, and poses significant health risks with prolonged exposure. Because of this, other governments are phasing it out in favor of renewable electricity. So what is natural gas, how is it produced, and how is it used in your home? Whether you live in a house in Boston, or an apartment in New Haven, CT, read on to learn more.
What is natural gas?
Natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel extracted from the earth through drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking). It’s a colorless, odorless gas mixture composed of four gasses – primarily methane, a highly flammable gas. Natural gas is classified as a fossil fuel because it originates from organic matter that is hundreds of millions of years old.
In the U.S., natural gas is used for different purposes like generating electricity, producing heat, and powering vehicles. It’s especially helpful in homes to provide energy during times when other renewable sources are not available or during peak usage periods.
What is natural gas used for in your home?
“Most homes primarily use natural gas for heating, cooking, and drying clothes,” notes Pete Deininger from Breck Life Group. In fact, 58% of homes across the country use natural gas to heat their homes, amounting to 42% of total residential energy consumption.
Furnaces in particular are common in homes and often use natural gas to operate. The team at R.A. Dobson, Inc., agrees: “Natural gas and liquid propane gas are the most common fuels furnaces use, though some types operate through electricity or burning wood.”
Gas stoves are especially popular for their cooking capabilities and lower energy costs, but they have been shown to reduce indoor air quality. Gas clothes dryers are another standard option for consumers.
Appliances that use natural gas
- Clothes dryers
- Water heaters
- Pool heaters
- Outdoor grills
Appliances that use natural gas typically have lower operating costs than appliances that run on electricity, so switching to natural gas can save you money.* Unfortunately, many gas appliances still won’t work during power outages, as they usually require electricity to operate.
Natural gas is not a long-term, sustainable source of energy, even though it has many benefits.
*ENERGY STAR certified electric heat pump water heaters and air source heat pumps can have lower operating costs than their gas counterparts, except in extremely cold climates. Take your climate into account before deciding between gas vs electric appliances.
Is natural gas clean energy?
Natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel that is not a sustainable long-term option. However, natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel available today. When burned, natural gas produces nearly a third less carbon dioxide (CO2) than coal and almost half the amount of petroleum. Because of its cleaner properties and flexible uses, many governments and industries have relied more heavily on it, resulting in the lowest CO2 levels the power sector has seen in nearly three decades.
Health risks associated with natural gas
There are risks to using natural gas indoors, including poor indoor air quality and gas leaks (which can be difficult to detect). Let’s break these down:
- Reduced indoor air quality: Burning natural gas produces a few dangerous chemicals, including nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane. Gas stoves are one of the leading causes of poor air quality, mainly due to the open flames. Most modern gas appliances are highly efficient and convert more than 99.9% of the energy into CO2, although they still produce methane and NO2 during ignition and low-combustion cooking.
- Gas leaks: Although often minor, gas leaks are frequent and can reduce indoor air quality. Gas leaks will smell like rotten eggs because of the mercaptan that is added during refining. Leaking gas is dangerous; it produces methane and carbon monoxide, both of which cause moderate to severe side effects in small quantities. Installing carbon monoxide detectors can help alert you to leaking gas before it reaches dangerous levels.
If you detect a gas leak by the odor or your CO2 detector, leave the area immediately and call your gas company and/or 911.
How will natural gas legislation affect my home and neighborhood?
Legislative initiatives are underway to phase out natural gas in favor of electric options due to health and air quality concerns. Read up on local legislation to see if natural gas is being phased out in your area. If your home is or will be affected by a natural gas ban, you might want to explore a switch to electric power.
Here are a few examples of recent natural gas legislation:
- New York may become the first state to ban natural gas as an energy source in new buildings.
- Washington State and Berkeley, CA, have proposed legislation to ban natural gas usage completely by 2034.
- California drafted legislation to become the first state to ban natural gas-powered water and space heaters by 2030.
Phasing out natural gas, however, means developing more green energy sources to cover the demand.
Other states, like Ohio, have begun passing legislation strengthening their use of natural gas, regulating natural gas to include the language “green energy.”
How is natural gas produced?
Natural gas is the product of ancient organic matter (plants and animal remains) that has been subject to millions of years of pressure and heat beneath layers of sand, silt, calcium, and rock. Once extracted, it gets processed into usable, transportable natural gas.
The production process starts with extraction, then moves to refinement, and ends with transportation.
Natural gas is extracted from underground deposits through drilling and fracking. Drilling creates a channel for the gas to flow to the surface, and fracking uses a high-pressure mixture of water, sand, and chemicals to force the gas out. The extracted gas is then processed to processing facilities to remove impurities and transform it into a consumer-grade product. It’s usually transported via pipelines or trucks to reach millions of destinations such as homes, businesses, and power plants. Some processing plants hypercool the gas to create liquefied natural gas (LNG), which has uses beyond conventional natural gas.
Dangers of natural gas production
Natural gas production can be a harmful process. Drilling often disturbs vegetation and soil and may also require land clearing, which can displace wildlife. Drilling also releases pollutants, including chemicals that contaminate water used in handling, storage, and treatment. Fracking is a very disruptive process that requires large amounts of water, which can become contaminated.
Now drilling technologies and discovery techniques have reduced the industry’s environmental impact, primarily by decreasing the number of wells necessary to develop a natural gas field.
What is the difference between natural gas and propane?
Propane is one of four gasses that make up natural gas. Propane is not extracted independently; it is a byproduct of natural gas extraction. The refining process separates propane from methane and other gasses.
Additionally, propane is more fuel-efficient but can’t be delivered via pipes. It’s generally stored as a liquid and delivered in tanks or trucks for individual use.
Is natural gas cheaper than electricity?
Natural gas is usually cheaper on a month-to-month basis than electricity. However, this depends on your region, electricity source, and how much energy you conserve.
Is natural gas renewable?
Natural gas is not renewable. However, another form of natural gas, renewable natural gas (RNG, or biogas/biomethane), is renewable. Biogas is the gaseous product of decomposed organic matter that has been processed to specific purity standards.
It is possible to make RNG, but it’s most common in industrial settings. RNG is usually made from waste products found in landfills, livestock operations, wastewater treatment, and organic waste from commercial and industrial businesses.
Final thoughts on natural gas in your home
Natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel that emits harmful chemicals when burned and stored. It’s also the cleanest fossil fuel available and produces a large portion of the energy in the U.S. It’s especially beneficial for generating electricity. Due to its low emitting qualities, many governments and companies are switching to natural gas to lower their emissions as they transition to renewable resources. Biogas and other forms of renewable natural gas are being developed to help ease the burden of dependence on natural gas, but they are not a permanent solution.
Many homeowners and renters use natural gas every day in their homes, from appliances to furnaces to electricity production. However, due to air quality, indoor air pollution, and other health risks, legislation is phasing out natural gas across the country in many areas. Stay current on your local legislation and switch to electric appliances if they suit your situation.