Gas without frontiers


A conference shows that Germany and the Netherlands have similar interest about gas research

A conference gathered participants from the Netherlands and Germany in Arnhem on 7-8 February 2013. A conference gathered participants from the Netherlands and Germany in Arnhem on 7-8 February 2013.

Smart gas grids, power-to-gas, gasification, biogas… Participants used these key-words at the international conference Gas without Frontiers, held in Arnhem on 7–8 February. They were meeting for the first time to connect research programs of the Deutscher Verein des Gas- und Wasserfaches (DVGW) and the Energy Delta Gas Research (EDGaR). They discussed new gas technologies, the production of new gas and their effects, as well as social and economic aspects of the gas system. The conference showed that Germany and the Netherlands have similar interest about gas research to ensure the transition towards sustainable energy.

Gas technologies

On both sides of the frontier, researchers investigate power-to-gas technologies and smart grid for their disruptive innovation potential. Smart grids enable the production of energy by decentralized production units as well as the management of grid operations. Information technologies measure energy consumption, monitor gas quality and indicate the pressure in the gas grid in real time, said Ben Lambregts, a process and asset manager at Liander. Moreover, smart grids enable the control of the load shift and the storage and transport of renewable energy. “Smart grid can help to integrate renewables in an elegant way,” said Gert Mueller-Syring, a managing director at DBI Gas Technology Institute.

Power-to-gas technologies may help, too, the deployment of sustainable source of energy production, by providing affordable and flexible storage of electricity. Hartmut Krause, managing director at the DBI Gas Technology Institute, recalled that power-to-gas has a tremendous potential to balance the electricity grid, which, at least in Germany, rely increasingly on intermittent source of renewable energy. While scientists know since a long time how to produce gas from electrolysis, they remain challenged by the technological development of power-to-gas technologies. One of the core developments has to be made on advanced methanation processes, explained Siegfried Bajohr, a researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

Making new gases

Researchers of both the Netherlands and Germany work on the making of biomethane, substitute natural gas and hydrogen. Companies will increasingly inject biogas in the grid in the Netherlands, while the production of natural gas will decrease with the depletion of the natural gas fields, recalled Martin Scheepers, the director of biomass and energy efficiency at ECN. On the basis of the current demonstrations, “biomethane by gasification can be made to natural gas standards,” said Luc Rabou, an expert researcher at ECN. This significant technological step being made, a consortium is building a biomass-based SNG plant in Alkmaar.

There is a “high biogas potential in North and Central Germany,” said Ronny Erler, the manager of biogas technologies at DBI Gas Technology Institute. “The location of a biogas or a biomethane feeding facility does not just depend on the local biogas potential,” he said. It also comes from restrictive and selective location factors. A research team has developed a process for thermochemical SNG production out of biomass, said Dominic Buchholz, a researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Moreover, researchers designed innovative solutions to diversify the sources of gas supply. An original methanation process can mix green gases made out of feedstock and hydrogen out of renewables, said Gerald Linke, from E.ON New Built and Technology.

Effects of new gases

New gas can have effects on infrastructure components as well as on users’ equipment. If gas distribution companies are widening the gas band, the new gases may degrade the infrastructure: plastic may start to crack when exposed to stress conditions, while metal may corrode. Therefore, René Hermkens, a project manager at Kiwa Technology, leads a research on the effects of gas components on materials to determine at which concentration they can be allowed. This research will lead to the establishment of new norms and standards of gas quality.

At the other side of the gas chain, industrial and domestic users are concerned by the injection of new gas. Frank Burmeister, who works at the Gas and Warmth Institute in Essen, investigates the injection of hydrogen into the natural gas network to determine how it affects the operation of existing application technologies and on combustion control strategies. “Operators of sensitive applications need to be prepared with recommendations for action and the appropriate measuring and control systems,” he said. Gas suppliers and appliance manufacturers have to provide assistance to industrial and domestic users, according to Holger Dörr, a researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Some industrial standards have to be revisited to ensure the efficiency and security of use.

Gas system

Gas networks of both the Netherlands and Germany remain complex sociotechnical systems. How new technologies will be compatible with public values such as sustainability, safety, affordability and reliability? It is possible to embed social responsibility into technology and institutions, said Rolf Künneke, a professor at Delft University of Technology. Value sensitive design, a method by which design requirement for tomorrow gas infrastructure are derived from norms and values, can contribute to the social acceptation of new gas technologies.

“Future research should benefit decision makers in the energy arena,” said Bert Kiewiet, a consultant at DVN KEMA. Decision makers need to be informed on possible future gas market developments, technological change in the gas markets and the position of gas in the energy mix. In parallel with research on the technological development of new gas technologies, social science research should be carried on gas by identifying the drivers of change, thanks to a multidisciplinary and multi-utility approach.

A research program

An analysis of the current situation on gas research reveals that “up to now only a few European gas research initiatives exist,” said Frank Graf, a professor at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. In the policy document Energiekonzept (2010), Germany’s Federal government, which downplayed nuclear energy after the tragic nuclear accident of Fukushima, did not see gas as an alternative, promising source for energy production. Lately, it has changed its opinion to a favorable one, which may increase the chance that it will support gas research. 

Catching on the opportunity of the Energiewende, Mr Graf pointed out that several options are at sight. Researchers can bundle their existing programs, launch a new European-initiative and raise the interest of the industry, the government and the users. Yet, they will have to overcome some difficulties, such as the “limited commitment and financial support from industry,” he said. One of the promising areas of research, according to him, has to be found in the production of biogas.

At the European level, the program Horizon 2020 may provide an opportunity to get financial support from the European Commission, said EDGaR’s Scientific Director Catrinus Jepma, who is also the director of the EDIaal program of the Energy Delta Institute and professor of energy and sustainability at the University of Groningen. The Netherlands and Germany, given the similarities of the problems they face, can prepare a common research program. They would have to find extra partners among the members of the European Union, where gas represents an essential source for heating and electricity generation.

Mr Jepma pointed out that North Western European countries search for ways to balance the electricity grid, which relies increasingly on intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Research problems have to be tackled by taking the energy system in an integrated fashion and not to start niche research projects that only cover one specific part of the system. Mr Jepma suggested framing the research problems into transversal themes such as demand, storage and supply flexibility. In a nutshell, gas can contribute achieving European Union’s goal in reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases.

By Jean-François Auger