A cost-efficient energy transition draws on the flexibility of the gas system, argues Beate Raabe
Gas has a key role to play in achieving the EU’s climate and energy targets for 2030 and 2050, as well as the goals of the Paris Agreement.
This is achieved by first picking the low-hanging fruit: using natural gas instead of coal in power generation and instead of oil in heating and transport.
In transport, gas solves air quality issues too, because it not only emits less carbon dioxide but also a lot fewer sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.
To 2030, a switch to gas from higher carbon fuels is the most cost-efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to increase energy efficiency whilst a higher share of renewable energy is particularly built by more wind and solar power.
To 2050, the Eurogas energy transition strategy is based on the development of micro-combined heat and power (CHP), fuel cells and other innovative gas technologies. Renewable gas production is increased by developing biogas and synthetic gas. The latter can, for example, be produced by power-to-gas technologies, which can use excess electricity from wind and sun to turn water into hydrogen and, by making use of CO2, into synthetic methane.
This kills two birds with one stone. The difficult issue of storing electricity is solved by turning it into gas that can be stored and transported in the existing gas system. At the same time, another source of gas is developed and adds to diversity.
In addition, although public opinion has been turned against it, carbon capture and storage (CCS) should not be forgotten as a large-scale solution for decarbonization.
Interesting combinations are currently being considered, for example in Leeds in England. Here, the idea of the H21 Leeds City Gate project is to turn natural gas produced offshore into hydrogen and to use that hydrogen instead of natural gas in the city, while the carbon part of the gas molecule is captured and stored offshore as carbon dioxide.
On the Dutch island Ameland, hydrogen is produced from natural gas, the idea being that the hydrogen will increasingly be produced from renewable sources. Hotels are also switching to fuel cells or CHP because they can satisfy their needs for electricity and heat from one source very efficiently this way. In the long term, increasing volumes of renewable gas can be fed into the system.
In the past two years, gas has seen a comeback. Natural gas consumption in the EU-28 increased by 4 per cent in 2015, compared with 2014, and by another 7 per cent in 2016, compared with 2015, recent Eurogas statistics showed. Gas demand increased in 23 Member States and in Switzerland between 2015 and 2016 to 4928.6 TWh gross calorific value, equivalent to 456.3 billion cubic metres or 381.4 million tonnes of oil equivalent net calorific value. It very slightly decreased only in Finland.
As a result, CO2 emissions in the EU’s power generation sector dropped by 4.5 per cent in 2016, mainly due to a large switch from coal to gas.
In the UK, power sector carbon dioxide emissions decreased by as much as 18.7 per cent thanks to gas, and its potential to reduce CO2 emissions in all sectors is still large: 66 per cent in power generation, 42 per cent in heating and 25 per cent in transport.
Blend in renewable gas over time, and emissions can go towards zero. Supplies of renewable gases are, indeed, developing. In 2016 France recorded the largest increase of biomethane injected into the national gas grid: 162 per cent compared with 2015.
Several power-to-gas plants turning excess renewable electricity into hydrogen or synthetic methane are operating in the EU.
As the winters of 2015 and 2016 were colder, more gas was particularly used for heating in EU households.
Gas demand also grew in power generation, industry and transport in some countries in 2015, and more widely in 2016. A lot more electricity was produced from gas in France (+61 per cent), where combined-cycle gas turbines became more competitive, and in The Netherlands.
A cost-efficient energy transition draws on the flexibility of the gas system. Compared with the limitations of the power grid, the existing gas system can cope with large differences in demand, i.e., more than three times the load of a hot summer.
If heating and transport are to be largely electrified, this will require huge investment in power generation, high-voltage power cables and storage. However, electricity-only storage solutions are not long-term and will not be able to cover an extended cold spell in the winter. Concerns are expressed over perpetuating the use of natural gas, which, although at lower levels, still emits CO2. However, the potential offered by the large variety of renewable gas effectively addresses these concerns.
Gas use is also very efficient and a switch from coal and oil can gain 45 per cent in power generation and 65 per cent in heating. New gas heating systems are the most economic way to realize the energy transition in buildings.
Gas works well with variable renewables, such as wind and sun, but also ambient heat. Air heat pumps are only efficient down to about 7°C. Combining them with gas condensing boilers or running gas heat pumps are smart solutions that combine gas and renewables.
Also in Germany, electricity from gas stepped in during lower wind availability in 2016. As full electrification is facing high costs and technical limits, the flexibility and energy storage capability of the existing gas grid are becoming more apparent.
The EU gas market is increasingly opening up, thus becoming more and more competitive as well as more and more secure. European production is further declining, but the availability of LNG is increasing, particularly from the Americas.
The few missing infrastructure links are completed and the implementation of the new Security of Gas Supply Regulation will do the rest to address security of supply very effectively.
Beate Raabe is Secretary General of Eurogas, an association representing the EU institutions, companies and associations engaged in the wholesale, retail and distribution of gas in Europe. In April, Eurogas launched a new microsite entitled Making the energy transition happen: www.gaswindandsun.eu