Decarbonisation is a top priority for natural gas

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Caroline Gentry, Senior Energy Analyst, dmg events
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Faced with a ‘growing crescendo’ in the media against gas, the industry is faced with a tough challenge to cut methane leaks and develop green gas technologies while keeping costs down to remain competitive.

A “broad banquet” of solutions is available to maintain the environmental credentials of gas, including biogas, synthetic methane, hydrogen and innovative ways to use clean gas in transportation, Dr Timm Kehler, Chairman of Zukunft Erdgas told delegates at the EAGC/CEE Conference in Berlin last week. But these options are not yet ready to replace conventional supply, and the natural gas industry must address the problem of methane leaks to win public approval.

“Methane leaks are the greatest threat to the image and reputation of gas as a fuel. If leaks are greater than 3-4%, coal is cleaner,” said Roland Kupers, Advisor, Environmental Defense Fund. “The good news is that this isn’t rocket science. Half of the leaks can be fixed by a guy with a wrench, such as tanks with open valves, or joints leaking. 50% of the reductions can be made at no net cost, which will have the same impact as closing 1,000 coal plants. This is a real low-hanging fruit. It’s cheap and it’s easy.”

A broad assessment of methane leaks in the US oil and gas supply chain in 2015 published this summer in Science magazine found that the problem is worse than previous estimates by air regulator the EPA, mostly from gas gathering and valves in abnormal conditions. But regulations do work, Kupers said. The US, Canada and Mexico have pledged a 45% reduction in leaks under their Tres Amigos project, which so far the Trump administration has not been able to roll back.

“It’s a good and important wake-up call for the natural gas industry to look at the figures and reduce methane where possible to achieve climate goals,” agreed Gert Muller-Syring, Head of Department, Gas Grids/Gas Facilities DBI Gas, a research institute.

New technologies are emerging that will go even further to cut emissions from the gas production cycle. One such option is the Cryo Pur system, which separates methane from heavier hydrocarbons in gas that would otherwise have been flared and produces LNG at micro scale. The same system can be used for other waste gasses, for example, the BioGNVal project in France is fuelling trucks using liquid biomethane produced from wastewater.

Germany already has 9,500 biogas plants and other European countries have ambitious targets, said Hendrick Becker, Vice-President, German Biogas Association. A regulatory framework that would allow cross border selling of certificates for biomethane, biogas that has been upgraded to gas grid quality, would help achieve these targets, he said.

A key discussion at industry association Eurogas is whether a specific EU target for renewable and decarbonised gas is required, said Eva Hennig, Chair of the Distribution Committee. “Now we’re accepting the reality that an all-electric world is not happening and it’s not feasible and too expensive, we’re looking more at the mixture between technologies. Legislation is outdated. Now we have the opportunity for sector coupling and renewable gas, this why it’s very important to have a gas package. We have to think integrated.”

The European Parliament will soon vote on legislation to set the first CO2 emission standards for heavy-duty vehicles in the EU, with an initial target of 15% lower by 2025 than in 2019. The EU will also release a low-carbon economy strategy for 2050 later this month that may favour renewable gas such as hydrogen for applications in heavy-duty transport, industry and residential heating.

Natural gas can provide solutions to help achieve EU targets and various initiatives are underway to drive the technologies required.

For example, the Deutsche Energie-Agentur (DENA), the German Energy Agency, has launched the Global Alliance Power Fuels, an international alliance to open up global markets for synthetic fuels based on renewable energy sources.

“Climate-neutral synthetic fuels or ‘power fuels’ are not just a missing link to meeting our climate targets but also a huge business opportunity,” said Christophe Jugel, Director Energy Systems DENA.

Opinions vary on the potential contribution of biogas for transport, but even at 10-15% of the total by 2050 “it’s not insignificant,” said Benjamin Berg, Business Development for Northern Europe at Cryo Pur.

The future of road transportation fuels will depend on whether electric vehicles (EVs) or gas and hydrogen solutions prove most cost-effective and logistically feasible.

“The key message is let us see. At the moment electromobility is the best way to go ahead but we should use all the options that are available,” said Norbert Verweyen, CTO Innogy e-mobility. “If you take into account we have an enormous amount of investment in renewables now, we have a chance to have smart charging with distributed generation and if you combine both then you have an advantage, let us do it, it’s good for the economy and the environment.”

Prices are dropping significantly year to year, and the tipping point for EVs will come in the next five years, said Artur Sychov, CEO, Batteries are improving and becoming lighter. “Technological advancement is what brings e-mobility forward in terms of cost-effectiveness.” Answering a common criticism of more widespread use of electric vehicles, he said that they will not place too much stress on the electricity system because with load management charging can be spread out throughout off-peak periods and using distributed renewable generation.

Gas solutions have a key advantage in that they can use existing infrastructure. “For now the real equivalent to diesel is LNG,” said Oliver Tyson, Head of Gas Analysis at Gunvor. “There are opportunities here to grab and many manufacturers have been quick to find solutions for that. We consider this a very promising area of growth in the market.”

Uniper subsidiary Liqvis opened the first of 14 planned LNG filling stations just outside Berlin this month using EU funding. “It’s a mature technology, it only needs to be transformed onto the road for us to take advantage of it,” said Silvano Calcagno, Head of Joint Ventures North/East Uniper. A motorway toll exemption introduced by the German Parliament shows there is more support for natural gas fuelled vehicles, he added.

Compressed natural gas initiatives have failed in the past but with at-home fuelling that could change, said Robert Strods, Co-Founder and CEO of Hygen. Using a novel liquid piston compression technology to produce the fuel at home, the existing infrastructure and car fleet could be adapted to use CNG. The technology is at the pilot phase with Volkswagen in Europe and the Gas Technology Institute in the US. “It’s a whole new opportunity for natural gas. You can increase consumption of your core product and do it at a price that’s 40% less. And that’s a game changer.”

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