Last year was the first year in Southern Company’s 100 year history that the company used more natural gas than coal to generate electricity. But while natural gas is cheap and plentiful, the company isn’t willing to convert all its plants to natural gas.
New technology called fracking is making it possible to tap into huge supplies of natural gas in shale in the U.S. Natural gas prices in America, which have historically been very volatile, are now the lowest in the world, according to Marilyn Brown, energy policy professor at Georgia Tech.
Economists say that’s a game-changer for the nation’s energy costs. Tim Leljedal, a spokesman for Southern Company, says “The amount of coal that we’ve used to generate power for customers has decreased from 70 percent of our generation mix to 35 percent. While natural gas use has increased from 11 percent to 47 percent.”
But Southern Company is building two new nuclear units at Plant Vogtle in Georgia and a new coal plant in Mississippi. Why?
Leljedal says concerns about new technology to harvest natural gas called fracking need to be resolved. And he says there are a number of other factors.
“There’s a need to develop more natural gas infrastructure in terms of new pipelines and increased storage capacity. We need to determine the pace and degree of natural gas exports. ” he says.
Company officials say they have to think 30 years ahead. They say once the U.S. begins exporting natural gas, prices will rise domestically.
Marilyn Brown says Southern is wise to diversify. She says once more facilities come on line to store liquefied natural gas, exports from the U.S. will become a significant part of the market.
“The East, Japan, China, Europe, want to purchase our abundant natural gas supplies. Right now we cannot export because we don’t have sufficient LNG terminals. But that will change, probably in the next four or five years.” she says.
Brown says once exports start in earnest, natural gas prices will rise for both energy companies and consumers.