Is Natural Gas the New Alternative Energy Source?

In today’s guest post, Emerson’s Douglas Morris of the alternative energy industry team, explores how the abundance of natural gas is generating discussions around the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standards and alternative energy-based processes.

About a month ago, a bill was submitted to the US Congress to change the definition of a feedstock within the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) to include natural gas and coal. These would be classified as “Domestic Alternative Fuels“. I’ve previously mentioned that I suppose that these can be considered renewable as long as you extend your timeline for measurement. The idea gave me pause because I thought that having these fossil sources compete for gallons within the RFS would most certainly hurt the nascent alternative fuels industry.

I read something interesting this week in Biofuels Digest about a company called Coskata that uses a process to produce ethanol from a biomass feedstock via gasification. You see Coskata is going to put a reformer on their process and use natural gas to generate the syngas needed for their proprietary process. Although the ethanol they would subsequently produce would not be considered renewable according to the current definition, the supply of cheap natural gas gives them options for syngas that can mitigate fluctuations in feedstock price.

Looking at the entire alternative energy industry, there are a number of producers that use a syngas pathway to fuels or chemicals. Perhaps more of them will be taking a look at using natural gas as a feedstock? With the recent announcement by President Obama to take advantage of the abundant supply of cheap natural gas, I expect that more of these companies will evaluate how their process can be changed from a Biomass to Liquids (BTL) process into a Gas to Liquids (GTL) process. At a minimum, this will provide interesting fodder for the discussion about changing the RFS, which by the way, seems to be garnering more and more momentum to be reevaluated and changed.

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