All About Natural Gas - Accent Energy, New York
Most of the time, you think nothing of it. You just put your French fries in the oven and turn a dial or you sigh as the furnace rattles to life to bring you warmth. You don't realize that you're making use of an amazing energy source that has been piped right into your home. Natural gas is an important part of our lives and a fuel that gives you a lot of bang for your buck. In addition to running stoves and other appliances, natural gas fuels many power plants that provide electricity to your home and the businesses you patronize every day.
Natural gas is very similar to other fossil fuels. Millions of years ago, dead plants and animals were covered by mud and rock and other debris. Over the millennia, these organic materials were buried ever deeper. The heat of the Earth's crust and the pressure of the surface rock broke down the organic materials and fostered chemical reactions until flammable hydrocarbon gas was produced. Natural gas is often found above liquid petroleum deposits. The gas, of course, is lighter, so it bubbles up and forms a layer between petroleum and the rock that holds them both under the surface.
The natural gas that fuels your stove, water heater or furnace is really a mixture of several different naturally occurring gases. The most common of these is methane (CH4). The other flammable molecules you'll find in natural gas (in varying amounts) are ethane (C2H6), propane (C3H8) and butane (C4H10). Each of these volatile, flammable compounds is composed of just two kinds of atoms: carbon and hydrogen. This is why you may have heard about "hydrocarbon" molecules being so full of energy.
Once removed from the ground, natural gas is refined to remove any existing impurities or unwanted ingredients. There's one last step, however. In its original form, natural gas is colorless and nearly odorless. People need to be able to tell if there is a natural gas leak in their home, so a chemical called mercaptan is added before the gas is distributed to consumers. This small amount of mercaptan is what causes the big rotten egg odor that lets you know if you need to call your natural gas provider.
During the refining process, some of those gases are isolated and sold on their own. The grill in your backyard may be fueled by a refillable propane tank. Butane is a popular fuel for smaller burners.
As the American infrastructure developed, natural gas pipelines developed right along with it. Before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, people lit their homes and streets with gas lights. Even as electrical technology advanced, natural gas pipelines were laid from the refinery to nearly every populated area, both urban and suburban. The current United States natural gas pipeline network features 302,000 miles of inter- and intrastate pipelines, 1,400 compressor stations to keep the pressure regular and 399 underground storage facilities. Texas alone accounts for 58,000 of those pipeline miles.
Natural gas is somewhat unique among fossil fuels when it comes to supply. While the supply certainly isn't infinite, most estimates indicate that the world has sufficient known reserves of natural gas to meet demand for decades to come. In 2007, the United States boasted 452,768 natural gas producing wells (including over 76,000 in Texas). This total number of wells has risen steadily since the early 1990s, and this number doesn't look to decrease any time soon.
There are approximately 70 million natural gas consumers in the United States. This includes residential, commercial and industrial users. Those customers used a total of just over 23 million cubic feet of natural gas in 2007; a number that steadily rises each year (In case you're curious, Texas accounts for 3.5 million cubic feet of that total.). While the number of customers has gone up, residential users have been using slightly less natural gas in the past decade. This could be the result of the introduction of more efficient appliances. Each year, Texas electric plants burn almost 1.5 million cubic feet of natural gas to create the electricity that powers your home.
The powerful hydrocarbons in natural gas are a big part of modern living, and that's not going to change any time soon. Fortunately, energy companies are keeping pace. Each time you flick the light switch, you're benefitting from the hard work the natural gas industry has done to ensure a smooth steady supply of their product.