Is Natural Gas “Clean”?

Electricity from Natural Gas

Natural gas is a fossil fuel formed when layers of buried plants and animals are exposed to intense heat and pressure over thousands of years. The energy that the plants and animals originally obtained from the sun is stored in the form of carbon in natural gas. Natural gas is combusted to generate electricity, enabling this stored energy to be transformed into usable power. Natural gas is a nonrenewable resource because it cannot be replenished on a human time frame.

The natural gas power production process begins with the extraction of natural gas, continues with its treatment and transport to the power plants, and ends with its combustion in boilers and turbines to generate electricity.

Initially, wells are drilled into the ground to remove the natural gas. After the natural gas is extracted, it is treated at gas plants to remove impurities such as hydrogen sulfide, helium, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, and moisture. Pipelines then transport the natural gas from the gas plants to power plants.
Power plants use several methods to convert gas to electricity. One method is to burn the gas in a boiler to produce steam, which is then used by a steam turbine to generate electricity. A more common approach is to burn the gas in a combustion turbine to generate electricity.

Another technology, that is growing in popularity is to burn the natural gas in a combustion turbine and use the hot combustion turbine exhaust to make steam to drive a steam turbine. This technology is called “combined cycle” and achieves a higher efficiency by using the same fuel source twice.

Environmental Impacts

Although power plants are regulated by federal and state laws to protect human health and the environment, there is a wide variation of environmental impacts associated with power generation technologies.

The purpose of the following section is to give consumers a better idea of the specific air, water, and solid waste releases associated with natural gas-fired generation.

Air Emissions

At the power plant, the burning of natural gas produces nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, but in lower quantities than burning coal or oil.  Methane, a primary component of natural gas and a greenhouse gas, can also be emitted into the air when natural gas is not burned completely. Similarly, methane can be emitted as the result of leaks and losses during transportation. Emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury compounds from burning natural gas are negligible.

The average emissions rates in the United States from natural gas-fired generation are: 1135 lbs/MWh of carbon dioxide, 0.1 lbs/MWh of sulfur dioxide, and 1.7 lbs/MWh of nitrogen oxides.1Compared to the average air emissions from coal-fired generation, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and one percent as much sulfur oxides at the power plant.2 In addition, the process of extraction, treatment, and transport of the natural gas to the power plant generates additional emissions.

Water Resource Use

The burning of natural gas in combustion turbines requires very little water. However, natural gas-fired boiler and combined cycle systems do require water for cooling purposes. When power plants remove water from a lake or river, fish and other aquatic life can be killed, affecting animals and people who depend on these aquatic resources.

Water Discharges

Combustion turbines do not produce any water discharges. However, pollutants and heat build up in the water used in natural gas boilers and combined cycle systems. When these pollutants and heat reach certain levels, the water is often discharged into lakes or rivers. This discharge usually requires a permit and is monitored. For more information about these regulations, visit EPA’s Office of Water website.

Solid Waste Generation

The use of natural gas to create electricity does not produce substantial amounts of solid waste.

Land Resource Use

The extraction of natural gas and the construction of natural gas power plants can destroy natural habitat for animals and plants. Possible land resource impacts include erosion, loss of soil productivity, and landslides.


What’s the primary fuel source?

Exelon has been telling everyone that Natural Gas will be the primary fuel source and oil will be a backup. However, when ask by the Energy Facility Siting Board to estimate the amount of time the proposed plant would have ran on oil in 2014, the answer was 59 percent of the time it would have operated on oil.

What’s currently in Medway?

Exelon Generation currently owns and operates the West Medway electric generating facility in Medway – a 3-unit oil-fired peaking power plant that produces 117 megawatts of energy. The plant began operating in 1970, and only operates am average of 60-80 hours per year. It would take 65 years of operation to equal the operation time of the proposed expansion. It also uses NO water and generates NO waste water through operation.

Why build it in Medway?

Exelon had five candidate sites potentially available for development located at existing properties in Everett, Framingham, Boston, Medway and Weymouth, Massachusetts. Exelon states their filings that Medway was chosen as the top candidate because the “ease of permitting”,  no Chapter 91 license necessary, cost (The Everett location would require decommissioning of retired generation stations), “significant support of Town officials”. Town Administrator Michael Boynton said the town has been working with Exelon since the fall, when the project was first presented to the Board of Selectmen. Since the fall modifications to industry zoning bylaws were made and water studies were funded by Exelon to find water to supply the 95,000-190,000 gallons per day required to operate.

In the recent Comprehensive Plan Approval Application Exelon states, “With funding assistance from Exelon, the Town of Medway recently conducted an advanced leak detection study which identified a sizable leak representing a significant portion of unaccounted-for water by the Town. With the repair of this, and several other leaks detected during the survey, Exelon will be seeking to obtain any water available within the limits of the existing Water Management Act Permit, to supply Exelon a portion of the necessary water for the proposed Facility.”

During the May 2015 town meeting residents voted on numerous bylaw changes, one of which hidden among changes was the removal of the industrial green belt requirement for abutting residential properties below. Removing this requirement will allows Exelon to build right up to the daycare center and other residential properties without a green belt buffer.

“A green belt not, less than 30 ft. wide shall be provided adjacent to residential district boundary lines, in a manner which will best shield said residential district. For the purpose of this section, a green belt is defined as a protective screen which shall be planted and maintained with evergreen trees or shrubs, not more than 15 feet apart or less than 6 feet high at the time of planting.”

What does the scale of this project look like?

Project Scale