What is the role of the gas business in transitioning to a sustainable energy supply?

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Natural gas, infrastructure and sustainable energy: a combination for the future

Germany is transitioning to a more sustainable energy supply, with a focus on “green” energy. This process will only gain momentum if all stakeholders participate – for example, in 2013, power generation from coal grew to reach the same level as in 1990, with a correspondingly large increase in greenhouse gas emissions. When discussing the Hows of sustainable energy, most people seem to focus on electricity. This gives insufficient space to an energy source that already contributes significantly to a better climate and could do so even more in the future: natural gas with biogas and methanized hydrogen and an existing well-developed infrastructure.

GEOMAGIC talked to Ralf Borschinsky, press officer of ONTRAS Gastransport GmbH, about opportunities and risks for transmission companies in the context of a sustainable energy supply.

Shouldn’t the current transition to “green energy” be a boost for operators of gas networks?

It should indeed. Gas networks transmit double the amount of energy that electricity networks do per year. Also, gas networks can already be considered “bio ready”. When high-grade biogas and methanized hydrogen are added to the medium, the lean carbon footprint of natural gas is improved even further. Using gas as a fuel reduces traffic greenhouse gas emissions. And the power-to-gas technology will become an interesting option for storing surplus electricity from wind turbines and photovoltaic units, which cannot currently be used.

However, we are not able to properly tap this high potential at the moment. In contrast to the European level, where gas is even mentioned with priority over electricity in energy politics, German politics hardly seems to be aware of the role of natural gas for a sustainable energy supply. Natural gas is scheduled to be almost completely replaced by renewable energies by 2050. This does not give due credit to gas as an energy source, and to the bonus provided by the existing pipeline infrastructure. Scientific studies[1] show: If power-to-gas technology is used at industrial scales, it provides the most economic option for using surplus electricity from renewable sources. At the moment, surplus energy just leads to capacity overloads of the electricity transmission network, and power stations have to work at reduced capacity or be powered down. To use power-to-gas efficiently, suitable sites for facilities have to be determined using clearly defined criteria, also considering biogas supply (as a source of CO2 for methane synthesis). Additionally, biogas and natural gas have to be used more extensively for mobility (including for freight, heavy-haul transport and ships).

 What does all this mean for the ONTRAs network?

Our network currently links up 21 biogas facilities producing up to 155 million cubic meters of biogas per year. This makes for about 17 percent of the biogas fed into German transmission systems. We also reach two power-to-gas facilities which feed in hydrogen. Our network is part of the transition process toward green energy. As we want to keep it that way, ONTRAS is a partner of the “Power-to-Gas-Potenzialatlas für Deutschland” (Power-to-gas potentials in Germany) project of the German Energy Agency. ONTRAS is also a member of the European Green Gas Initiative. This initiative is working towards a CO2-neutral energy supply in 2050.

Do you think more advocacy work is required for power-to-gas? There does not seem to be much political interest. Does the technology have an image problem?

The gas business is actively working on that issue. The power-to-gas group of the German Energy Agency has published five key requirements for facilitating the use of power-to-gas, including the approval for regenerative syngas from power-to-gas as a fuel, the creation of incentives for electricity storage by changing the feed-in tariffs for regenerative energy, and an extension beyond 2018 of tax benefits for natural gas (and biogas!) as a fuel. Additionally, storage technologies should be exempt from end-user taxes and fees (including the renewable energy surcharge). ONTRAS is working in the Power-to-gas Potentials project and has initiated talks on the “convergence of networks” with electricity network operators. These talks don’t only cover power-to-gas, but intelligent relations between electricity and gas networks in general.

 How could gas and electricity transmission companies work together?

We are thinking of joint power-to-gas projects in order to optimize the technology, regular talks on technical issues, and joint research projects.

Is our network fit to transport gas from power-to-gas plants via existing pipelines?

The answer for synthesized methane is an unqualified yes, as this gas can be fed into the natural gas network without restrictions. Hydrogen is another issue, as adding hydrogen will change the combustion properties of natural gas. On the one hand, this means that technology updates will be required, because our current infrastructure is optimized for natural gas. On the other hand, there are additional restrictions. For example, natural gas used as vehicle fuel may not contain more than 2 percent by volume of hydrogen. Accordingly, hydrogen should only be fed into the network in places that have a high throughput of natural gas all year round. Even under optimum conditions, the capacity of the natural gas network for hydrogen is limited. A change of all industrial facilities and home appliances that use gas in order to accommodate hydrogen is not realistically feasible or economic.

 What do you think is the role of advocacy organizations and industry associations such as the BDEW, DVGW or the FNB Gas?

The industry associations have been doing sound political and advocacy work for a long time. Both the associations and the individual gas transmission companies are in contact with different political and administrative bodies. The latest studies that indicate an economically viable future for power-to-gas provide important points for consideration.

What do you think should happen in order for the gas business to actively participate in shaping a future sustainable energy supply?

Comparing our sector to the electricity business, where changes often require investments in the billions, we need relatively little: Incentives for producers of electricity from renewable energies to use the gas infrastructure for storage, clear criteria for determining suitable sites for power-to-gas facilities, and practical, economically viable business models for power-to-gas. Germany should also return to better economic incentives for producing and supplying biogas. Apart from water power, which is marginal in Germany, biogas is the only renewable energy source that is available 24/7. The gas business also needs a continuation of the current tax incentives for natural gas as a fuel in order to make use of market synergies. On this footing, we can really help sustainable energy along. A study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems found that reducing CO2 emissions by 80 percent until 2050 could be achieved with 60 billion Euros less per year if power-to-gas is used. In this scenario, investments into power-to-gas would pay off in less than five years.

[1] „The role of power to gas in achieving Germany’s climate policy targets with a special focus on concepts for road based mobility”, March 2015; Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, study on behalf of ETOGAS GmbH
“Entwicklung von modularen Konzepten zur Erzeugung, Speicherung und Einspeisung von Wasserstoff und synthetischem Methan in das Erdgasnetz”, DVGW, 2013