Greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas and coal for electricity generation in South Africa

  • Brett Cohen 1. Energy Research Centre, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa 2. The Green House, Cape Town, South Africa
  • Harald Winkler Energy Research Centre, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa
Keywords: shale gas, electricity, greenhouse gas emissions, South Africa, global warming potential


There is increased interest, both in South Africa and globally, in the use of shale gas for electricity and energy supply. The exploitation of shale gas is, however, not without controversy, because of the reported environmental impacts associated with its extraction. The focus of this article is on the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas, which some literature suggests may be higher than what would have been expected as a consequence of the contribution of fugitive emissions during extraction, processing and transport. Based on some studies, it has been suggested that life-cycle emissions may be higher than those from coal-fired power. Here we review a number of studies and analyse the data to provide a view of the likely greenhouse gas emissions from producing electricity from shale gas, and compare these emissions to those of coal-fired power in South Africa. Consideration was given to critical assumptions that determine the relative performance of the two sources of feedstock for generating electricity – that is the global warming potential of methane and the extent of fugitive emissions. The present analysis suggests that a 100-year time horizon is appropriate in analysis related to climate change, over which period the relative contribution is lower than for shorter periods. The purpose is to limit temperature increase in the long term and the choice of metric should be appropriate. The analysis indicates that, regardless of the assumptions about fugitive emissions and the period over which global warming potential is assessed, shale gas has lower greenhouse gas emissions per MWh of electricity generated than coal. Depending on various factors, electricity from shale gas would have a specific emissions intensity between 0.3 tCO 2 /MWh and 0.6 tCO 2 /MWh, compared with about 1 tCO 2 /MWh for coal-fired electricity in South Africa.
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