• Does gas have a role in future energy systems in Europe?

    Date posted:

    • Post Author

      Philip Sharman

      IFRF Director

Just a week ago, on 12th March, I was interested to note that National Grid (UK) launched the final report for its ‘Future of Gas’ Programme, a collaborative and interactive consultation that started in November 2016 and that I have been following with some interest. 

The title of the report – ‘The Future of Gas: How gas can support a low carbon future’ sounded upbeat and reading it cheered me up, as I had recently been reading another report – this time published in November last year by Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) –  titled ‘Can the Climate Afford Europe’s Gas Addiction’ and which accompanied the release of the results of a scientific study conducted by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (whom I rate), commissioned by FoEE, ‘Natural Gas and Climate Change’.

The National Grid report concludes that “gas can be used to meet the UK’s 2050 carbon targets in the most cost effective way.  It will be a major part of the solution to decarbonising heat and transport, improving air quality, supporting a strong UK economy, and delivering security of energy supply.”  This is in stark contrast to the FoEE report, which carried the strapline “no room for gas” and states, categorically, that continued gas use is “incompatible with Europe’s climate targets” and that “Europe has, at most, just nine years of energy-only emissions left before its 2°C carbon budget runs out, when taking into account the capacity of  non-OECD countries to mitigate their own emissions”.  So, what is the truth…?

Well, as you might have guessed, both reports are sound and both make valid points that I whole-heartedly agree with.  The difference – and the one factor that makes these two reports (almost) compatible with each other – is carbon capture and storage (CCS)… 

The National Grid report highlights the “crucial role of carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS)”, as it is referred to – notably, the prospect of “producing hydrogen at scale, using natural gas alongside…. CCUS, for the decarbonisation of heat, industry and transport”.  On the other hand, the FoEE report gives no credence to CCS, and even less to so-called ‘Negative Emission Technologies’ such as bio-CCS (aka BECCS), which it regards as “unproven technologies”, concluding with a recommendation that the “EU should not divert vital funds and resources to false solutions such as [CCS], unsustainable bioenergy or other false solutions.” (A footnote to the term ‘false solutions’ reads “FoE rejects all false solutions to climate change including nuclear, carbon capture and storage (including BECCS – BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage), REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), big dams, agrofuels, large scale biomass, carbon trading and offsetting. False solutions are already causing human rights and environmental rights violations, and they  distract from the real societal change that is needed.”).  So there lies the rub!

Looking at National Grid’s ‘The Future of Gas’ report in a bit more detail, the context is clearly stated:  The UK has passed into law the Climate Change Act 2008 requiring carbon emissions to be reduced by at least 80% by 2050 (from 1990 levels) – this needs to be achieved while maintaining security of supply and providing energy at the lowest cost to customers (i.e. the so-called ‘energy trilemma’).  Currently, gas plays a crucial role in the UK’s energy mix:  Eight out of ten homes rely on it for heating (with around 60,000 new domestic connections made to the gas networks each year); around 30% of UK gas is used for industrial and commercial demand; and National Grid’s gas transmission infrastructure delivers three times the annual energy delivered by the electricity network.

The consultation (involving around 150 stakeholders) allowed National Grid to gather evidence, discuss, understand and ‘stress-test’ the role of gas in the UK’s transition to a low-carbon economy.  Their analysis of potential pathways to 2050 failed to identify any credible scenarios that met the 2050 carbon targets without gas.

The report identifies a number of key steps that would enable gas and electricity to be “critical partners in a low-carbon world”:

  • using gas-fired generation with renewable generation to balance the electricity network;
  • making increasing use of excess renewable generation to produce hydrogen via electrolysis;
  • continuing to meet energy demand through cost-effective seasonal agility and supporting daily demand peaks at low cost, avoiding over-investment in rarely-utilised plant;
  • continuing to provide industry with an affordable source of heat and an important feedstock for manufacturing processes
  • investing in a more flexible gas grid, capable of transporting pure hydrogen, natural gas and blends of gases (including hydrogen, natural gas and biogases) in different areas: partnering a low-carbon electricity network;
  • producing hydrogen at scale, using natural gas alongside CCUS, for the decarbonisation of heat, industry and transport;
  • decarbonising buses and commercial vehicles using a mix of biogases and natural gas in the short term, in tandem with the electrification of cars, making significant inroads into air quality improvements; and
  • developing world-leading CO2 transportation and storage facilities, leveraging more than 100 years of CO2 storage capacity and a world-class oil and gas industry to help store it.

Certainly an interesting read, with many interesting pointers and opportunities for IFRF members.

As for Friends of the Earth Europe’s ‘Can the Climate Afford Europe’s Gas Addiction?’ report…  Well, you can read that for yourselves – I don’t want to get depressed again just yet!