While natural gas is emerging as the fuel of choice in the United States, that is not necessarily at the expense of renewable power. In fact, there is even room for the two to work together.
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is developing a device that creates a liquid fuel, which combines the best of the two resources and even goes one step further. In the design, a parabolic dish uses concentrated solar power to generate heat. That heat converts water to steam. Methane, a component of natural gas, combines with the steam to form syngas. Syngas can be stored and burned at a later time to generate electricity.
Syngas is a cleaner and more efficient alternative to natural gas. It has a higher energy content, which leads to lower emissions. According to PNNL, power plants can reduce their consumption of natural gas by about 20 percent using this conversion process while still producing the same amount of electricity.
The hybrid technology also addresses one of the biggest weaknesses of solar power: intermittency. Solar panels are only capable of generating electricity when the sun is out, and solar power plants must use other sources of power or stop generating when the sun isn’t shining. With the PNNL device, power plants can store the converted gas for generation when needed.
However, the technology is still being tested. PNNL is aiming for the $0.06 per kilowatt-hour mark by 2020, a price that would make it competitive with fossil fuels.