Can Europe Find a Role for Gas in a Net-Zero Carbon Energy System?
by Christina Nagy-McKenna
In the North of England two distribution natural gas utilities and a Norwegian energy company are strategizing to bring hydrogen to millions of homes and thousands of businesses by the middle of this century, thus supplanting the role of natural gas while reducing carbon emissions by 80% of 1990 levels. The project, H21 North of England, proposes a “deep decarbonization” of several energy sectors including space heating, transportation, and power generation. According to the project plan, hydrogen will be produced from natural gas at power facilities and distributed using existing natural gas distribution systems and expanded transmission systems. Salt caverns will store excess hydrogen until it is needed, and the carbon dioxide by-product of converting natural gas to hydrogen will be stored in saline aquifers. Soon planes, trains, automobiles, appliances, fuel cells, and industrial processing equipment may all utilize hydrogen.
One hundred thousand new jobs could be created by the time the vision is fully realized. The elusive dream of the clean hydrogen economy may be realized. Even with the UK’s impending exit from the EU, the UK’s proximity to Europe makes this is a very exciting project for the entire continent.
If hydrogen is the future, where does this leave European natural gas and its vast, ever-increasing network of pipelines, distribution systems, and LNG facilities? Is there still a role for natural gas in a part of the world that is very determined to have a net-zero carbon culture? After all, natural gas has long been viewed as the fuel that is merely holding a place in line until the hydrogen economy arrives. And with new technologies such as power-to-gas, bio methane, and green hydrogen, is natural gas even needed? The short answer is yes, but its role will change. Natural gas is a valuable feedstock for blue hydrogen, and existing natural gas infrastructure will be necessary and desired as Europe moves toward its energy future.
The existing natural gas infrastructure in Europe will be valuable in two ways:
1) to distribute hydrogen to end-use customers
2) to transport natural gas in order to produce hydrogen supply
For example, the H21 program aims to be the first that will make a large-scale conversion of an existing gas distributions system to hydrogen. Ten cities will see their natural gas systems converted by 2034. Thus, the participation of the two natural gas distribution companies in this project is key to its success and to the companies’ futures. If existing distribution lines can be converted successfully, there is no reason to believe that existing transmission lines couldn’t be adapted later as well. Reusing existing infrastructure saves money, and it also greatly reduces the environmental impact of building new pipelines.
The H21 distribution companies will build new transmission lines as needed while Norwegian partner Equinor will oversee the construction of a self-powered production facility that will use natural gas to manufacture hydrogen. It will also oversee [this isn’t the right word here, not sure what was intended] hydrogen storage and carbon capture of waste carbon dioxide (CO2). The process of taking natural gas and splitting it into hydrogen and CO2 is being tested elsewhere in Europe as well, including in the Netherlands, where 16 companies including Lindi, BP, Shell, and Gasunie are studying how it can utilize blue hydrogen in place of natural gas and coal.
There are several alternative forms of energy that can supplant natural gas in theory, but in practice most are limited. Taken together as a whole, they will benefit the environment overall.
Biomethane, the use of decomposed organic matter to produce methane, is a viable alternative, but limited in quantity and to the geographical area in which the source material is located. Green hydrogen, also called power-to-gas, uses excess energy from renewable electric sources to split water molecules and create hydrogen in a process called electrolysis. This is also viable, but it is limited to the amount of excess green energy available and may be best suited for smaller-scale projects.
Recently, a project team at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium reported that it has created a solar panel that creates hydrogen from moisture in the air. Hydrogen and oxygen molecules are created from water vapor. Researchers say they can produce an average 250 liters of hydrogen per day and that 20 such panels could power and heat a well-insulated home in Belgium for a year. The most difficult part of the process, according to the researchers, is capturing the moisture. Thus, perhaps this technology will be best suited for wetter climates and on a smaller scale.
This brings us back to natural gas and its potential as a fuel to create blue hydrogen for large-scale projects. When married with carbon capture and hydrogen storage technologies, blue hydrogen may be able to achieve the scale needed for a deep decarbonization of large end-user markets. Which is to say, to find an even cleaner version of natural gas we must turn to natural gas. Thus, if the H21 project is successful and its cities can indeed convert their natural gas systems to hydrogen, the current gas infrastructure will be indispensable. The role of natural gas will change from what we know today, but it will play a very important role for decades to come.