A study conducted by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) has found that electric utilities are increasing their use of natural gas for power generation, which in turn is contributing to lowering the carbon footprint of the United States.

The LLNL — which receives funding by the U.S. Department of Energy and is managed by a limited liability company whose partners include Bechtel Corp., Babcock & Wilcox Co., URS Corp., the University of California and Battelle Memorial Institute — also found that Americans used more fossil fuels in 2010 than in 2009, when consumption hit a 12-year low.

According to the LLNL, the United States used about 98.0 quadrillion Btu (quads) for energy in 2010, compared to 94.5 quads in 2009, a 3.7% increase. Petroleum was the largest source of energy at 35.97 quads. Natural gas came in second place at 24.65 quads, followed by coal at 20.82 quads.

The majority of energy use in 2010, 39.49 quads, was used for power generation. Coal remained the top energy source choice for electric utilities at 19.33 quads, but the LLNL said consistently low prices for natural gas caused its usage for power generation to grow 0.5 quads — to 7.52 quads — during 2010. The lab added that natural gas usage for power generation had increased 25% over the past six years.

Industrial and residential customers used natural gas more than any other source of energy in 2010, with industrial users taking 8.11quads of natural gas and households taking another 5.06 quads. Those figures mean industrial users relied on natural gas for 34.9% of their energy needs, while residential customers used natural gas for 42.9% of their energy needs.

Commercial customers used 3.28 quads of natural gas, second only to electricity.

Although carbon emissions were higher in 2010 compared to 2009, the LLNL said the overall carbon footprint from the United States was lower over a three-year period. The lab said the United States emitted 5,632 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2010, up from 5,428 million metric tons in 2009 but still lower than an all-time high of 6,022 million metric tons from 2007. The LLNL attributed the decline to less energy consumption, a shift from coal to natural gas for power generation and the growing adoption of renewables.

The LLNL’s findings mirror the findings in the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) latest Short-Term Energy Outlook (see NGI, Nov. 14). The EIA said it expects total natural gas consumption in 2011 to grow 1.7% to 61.1 Bcf/d, thanks in part to the rising use of natural gas in power generation, which grew 1.5%.

Separate studies by ICF International and the Gas Technology Institute also predict that natural gas will play an increasing role in power generation and help usher in a “smarter” power grid system that also incorporates an expanded use of renewables.

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