Gas grids should be seen as future renewable-energy networks rather than fossil-fuel carriers, especially as the European gas sector want to move to decarbonised gases, the head of Europe’s leading natural-gas trade body tells Recharge.

“The gas infrastructure is not just for natural gas,” says James Watson, secretary-general of Eurogas, who headed SolarPower Europe for four-and-a-half years until the end of 2018. “Some people confuse the gas grid — which they never managed to do with the electricity grid — as a fossil-fuel infrastructure.

“[The gas-grid] is 95% fossil-fuel today, but it won't be in the future. Electricity was hugely [generated by] fossil [fuels] and nuclear and it is now 30% or even 32% renewable. It's increasing. That's the kind of ambition you need to have in the gas grid.”

The future gas grid — in Europe at least — will not contain natural gas but clean hydrogen and/or biomethane, Watson explains.

The hydrogen will be produced from renewable energy via electrolysers (green H2), or from natural gas with the carbon (either CO2 or solid carbon) captured and stored (blue hydrogen). Biomethane is created by upgrading biogas produced by anaerobic digestion — the process by which organic matter such as animal and food waste is broken down in sealed oxygen-free tanks.

Anaerobic digestion may seem like a niche, but Watson points out that Poland — one of the EU’s laggards in emissions reduction — already generates 8% of its electricity from biogas.

The direction of travel towards clean gas was made clear last month, when the European Investment Bank decided to end investment in fossil-fuels, including natural gas — yet said it would still fund gas infrastructure, as long as the funding is related to electrolysis, anaerobic digestion or carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Decarbonised gas is also expected to be a key part of the European Green Deal due to be unveiled next week by the new European Commission.

Watson says that green gases will be required if countries are to become carbon-free by 2050, explaining that renewable electricity alone will not be able to heat Europe in winter, when sunshine and winds are weaker and energy demand soars during cold snaps — a familiar refrain among much of the energy sector.

“If only there was [a way to heat Europe with wind and solar and batteries]. But that’s just not how it is… And that’s where renewable gas and hydrogen come in,” Watson explains. “It makes much more sense” to use renewables to generate hydrogen in the summer, when solar power is high, and store it for use in the winter.

“It will be cheaper than simply trying to build everything electric,” he tells Recharge. “We’re not anti-electrification, we think that in heating it just makes more sense to have a smarter approach, which will use hydrogen plus electricity.

“Peak demand when you have a Beast from the East [the extreme cold snap in Europe in 2018] is just enormous. Good luck with heat pumps [which use electricity to warm up cold air] because they probably won’t work very well in that level of cold. We need to be pragmatic and not so ideological about it [and not to say] the only tools we can use are solar and wind and batteries. Because that doesn’t make sense.”

Watson says that he would not have made his controversial move from SolarPower Europe to Eurogas unless the trade association — which represents wholesale, retail and distribution gas companies from 22 countries — had committed to both carbon neutrality and to lobby governments to set targets for renewable and decarbonised gas.

Nevertheless, he has still been shunned by some former acquaintances, and been called names such as “Judas” and “traitor”.

But Watson, whose career seems to be driven by the desire to fight global warming, is undeterred, believing that greening the gas grid is an essential part of solving the climate crisis.

“People will argue with me, especially from the NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and go blue in the face telling me you only need electricity. And I've never felt that.

“I was at a conference in Paris [in early November] and was interrupted by Friends of the Earth. And I was sitting down and talking with some of the protesters [afterwards] and they literally had no concept of hydrogen or renewable gas. They think of only fossil gas, so there's a long way to go.

“When I started at SolarPower Europe in 2014, we had a long way to go as well. It's just that back then it was the incumbent electricity companies that were trying to stop us. Now it's the NGOs. It's kind of funny that the companies want to move [forward with green gas] and the NGOs won't support targets for renewable gas.”

Eurogas is advocating for no unabated natural gas in Europe by 2050, in line with the European Commission’s long-term strategy, which suggests that 20-25% of the gas used across the EU by then will be natural gas with CCS.

“We follow closely what the IPCC [the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and what the UK Climate Change Committee is saying — and they’re basically making the analysis, and the bet too, if you like, by saying if we're going to [limit global warming to] 1.5°C we need to go fast, which means taking carbon out of fuels that we're using every day.

“Both are saying you won't be able to achieve [the Paris Agreement] targets without CCS. So I think we try to be pragmatic about it and not fundamentalist. Sure, we all have a renewable future, but when will that be?”

How will a green gas grid work?

Due to hydrogen consisting of smaller molecules than natural gas, the ageing metal gas pipes installed in many parts of Europe cannot be used to transport H 2 — it will simply leak out of joints and valves. However, newer sections of gas grids tend to be made with a type of plastic called polyethylene (PE), which is suitable for carrying hydrogen. Some countries, such as the UK, are in the process of replacing the decaying metal pipes with PE ones.

“We've built a very big natural gas network. Our view in Eurogas is that it will be more efficient and more effective if we stick to using the grid that we have and upgrading it,” says Watson.

“So with polyethylene, you will still need to change valves and compressors to keep the pressure up, because you need more pressure with hydrogen. [That's] totally fine. That's not a major operation. You might dig up one or two sections of road here and there and you'll get it done within a week. That's not really a major issue.

“Now, what is more interesting is, if we keep one network, what are we blending in there? How much of it would be methane and how much of it would be hydrogen?

“As we go through this transition, we're probably going to go into a blending scenario — at one point we will have to make a decision and it might be different in different localities.”

Watson explains that he does not believe that gas grids will be 100% biomethane, or 100% clean hydrogen, but a combination of the two. And this exact mix — for instance, 20% biomethane and 80% hydrogen — will need to be agreed so that gas turbines, boilers and other equipment can be built to operate efficiently using this blended gas.

He adds that it is far too early to know what this blend might be. “I don't think that we can at this stage foresee whether countries like Germany, the Netherlands, the UK will say, ‘right, we're going to focus on hydrogen’ or whether France will go with biomethane, or whether we actually agree that we have one European-wide vision of a blended system.”

How to reduce the cost of green gases

While many economists and analysts firmly believe that carbon pricing is the best method to encourage low-carbon energy and phase out coal and gas — Eurogas does not seem to agree.

“Our view is that you need to set targets for renewable and decarbonized gas. We believe we should have progressive targets [for the amount of clean gas in the energy system] — up to carbon neutrality in 2050 — to phase in [green gas]. So you could say, ‘yes, we're talking about phasing out natural gas’, but from a communications point of view, we talk about phasing in the greener gases.

“[Government] targets are the best way to go… because that’s what tells people how to behave.”

Targets will help create the economies of scale needed to bring biomethane and clean hydrogen to price parity with natural gas, Watson explains, adding that it reminds him of the price of solar versus coal ten years ago. PV was then seen as prohibitively expensive, but solar power is now cheaper than coal-fired power in many parts of the world.

“We’re in a similar kind of boat. So, you’ve got spot prices [for natural gas] at around €18/MWh in Germany — which is Europe’s biggest gas market — increasing as we go into winter to €20-25/MWh. Biomethane’s coming in round about €80/MWh, [green] hydrogen about €110, €120. And pyrolysis [heating methane to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen so that the by-product is solid carbon, rather than CO2] is about twice that, by the way.

“So, you have to do policy [to achieve economies of scale]. Why else would you change from natural gas? You’re not going to. That's why we talk about targets all the time. Signals have to be given to investors to say, ‘okay, bet on black and that's the black you bet on’.”

What about methane leakage?

One of the arguments against using methane — natural gas or biomethane — over the long term is that it a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and that it leaks into the atmosphere — sometimes intentionally through venting and flaring by oil & gas companies.

The new EU energy commissioner, Kadri Simpson, has already stated that there will be a new bloc-wide initiative to reduce methane leakage. One of the main problems is that EU countries buy nearly half of the world’s internationally traded natural gas, and methane emissions from these imports are thought to be three to eight times higher than those from European gas.

Watson says Eurogas takes methane leakage “very seriously”, adding: “In Europe, methane leakage from natural gas is not particularly high, because we don't have huge amounts of extraction operations — and Norwegians that do have the best practices in the world, it's state of the art and the lowest methane emissions.

“In Europe, methane leakage from natural gas is not particularly high, because we don't have huge amounts of extraction operations — and Norwegians that do have the best practices in the world, it's state of the art and the lowest methane emissions.

“So, the real issue is how you actually work with the Russians, work with the Americans to make sure that they're addressing their methane emissions from extraction. And at the moment we're working with the [US-based] Environmental Defense Fund [EDF] to set up programs to look at how we can work together with governments [on this] .”

The EDF suggests that the EU imposes emissions benchmarks for imported natural gas, so that European countries buy methane that is produced in a more climate-friendly manner.

Watson says Eurogas is also working with the EDF and its members to measure and reduce fugitive methane emissions from distribution grids.

“We don't know if there is a [leakage] problem in downstream, but we should be checking everything because methane is a more potent greenhouse gas,” he says.

The marriage of electricity and gas

Despite fighting hard for a decarbonised gas sector, Watson firmly believes that, in the coming decades, the world will mainly rely on renewable electricity for its energy, with green gas taking a more junior role in the energy transition.

He points to a recent comment by the president of Eurogas, Philippe Sauquet, who is also the president of gas, renewables and power at French oil giant Total.

“Philippe said, ‘today, gas is the second most prevalent energy source after oil. And in the future, it will still be the second most prevalent — after electricity. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, but it's still an important part of the wedding.”