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The future of natural gas lies in renewable energy

2015-06-19

The future of natural gas can no longer be taken for granted. If natural gas is to play a meaningful role in the energy transition, it will have to form a coalition with renewable energy sources. This was one of the surprising results of EDGaR.

Luc Rabou at work at ECN in Petten  (photo: EDGaR/Jan Buwalda). Luc Rabou at work at ECN in Petten (photo: EDGaR/Jan Buwalda).

Few things are taken for granted as much as natural gas. Households simply assume that their stoves will always function and their central heating boilers will start every time. And there are still quite some years to go before the Dutch gas fields will be depleted. So what was the need for Energy Delta Gas Research (EDGaR), the ambitious and recently rounded off research programme on the role of natural gas in the future?

 “Today, the position of natural gas does not look too good,” says Catrinus Jepma, professor Energy and Sustainability at the University of Groningen and Chairman of the Program Steering Committee of EDGaR which was responsible for all research projects. “The situation in Europe is a bit schizophrenic. Renewables are small, but they are growing fast. Natural gas is on the way out as an energy source for domestic households, and has not yet really succeeded in breaking through into the transport market. And with regard to conversion to electricity, natural gas is clearly losing to coal and renewables. It is getting squeezed.”

“Stagnation means decline”

Natural gas has been the one source of energy that has been taken for granted in the Netherlands in the last fifty years. But with the emergence of new energy sources such as the sun, the wind and green gas, its position has clearly begun to shift in the last ten years. Geopolitical developments and the growing acknowledgement that the Groningen gas fields are finite are also important factors.

Ulco Vermeulen, director of Business Development at Gasunie and member of EDGaR’s Supervisory Board, explains that it is clear that the gas industry will have to come up with a plan. “Stagnation means decline. Many people assumed: natural gas will always be there. But its role in the energy transition will change dramatically. If you are convinced that the role of natural gas will change, and if you want the industry and society at large to support you, you will have to make an effort to show how this may work out. That is what we have been aiming at with EDGaR.”

Does natural gas need such a re-assertion? One would think so. The gas industry, for instance, is quite disappointed that in the government’s national Energy Agreement, with its focus on renewable energy sources, natural gas has got the short end of the stick. “When you look at the contribution natural gas makes to the total energy supply and the importance of gas to the national economy and GDP, it is rather odd that so little attention is paid to it in the Energy Agreement.”

No secure foundation for gas research

Jepma was one of the driving forces behind EDGaR. About ten years ago, he started to promote gas research from the University of Groningen. “Gas research lacks a secure foundation in the Netherlands,” says Jepma. “One could say that there is a contradiction between the amount of gas research going on and the importance of gas in our national economy, along with the reputation, within and outside Europe, of the Netherlands as a gas country. This was a matter of concern for the gas industry. The University of Groningen wanted to play a more prominent role in gas research. The science community and the gas industry found common ground, and this resulted in the EDGaR programme.”

The scientific community is a much-needed partner in the current public debate about the future of natural gas, says Anton Broenink, head of Operations at Gasterra and, just like Vermeulen, a member of EDGaR’s Supervisory Board. “Of course, we have our interest,” says Broenink, “that’s obvious. That is why knowledge must be developed by scientists. If we want to make a serious contribution to the debate, information must come from unbiased and reliable sources.”

Catrinus Jepma, Scientific Director, speaks in Amsterdam on 18 March 2015 (photo: EDGaR/Jan Buwalda). Catrinus Jepma, Scientific Director, speaks in Amsterdam on 18 March 2015 (photo: EDGaR/Jan Buwalda).

New insights

EDGaR covered three main research themes:

  • From mono gas to multi gas;
  • Energy systems of the future;
  • Changing gas markets

Each of the three themes was covered by teams with researchers from several research institutes. In total, they carried out thirty research projects.

What new insights have these projects produced? In the technical field, a lot of new information was discovered that can be used to create a future-proof gas system. For instance, it is now clear how new forms of natural gas – LNG, green gas, hydrogen – can be fed into the grid without pipelines being damaged or appliances (such as central heating boilers) shutting down. Some research projects have even resulted in applications for patents on new technologies.

Prior to EDGaR, a lot of this knowledge simply was not available, even though, according to Jepma, it is of key importance: “If you think there is a role for natural gas in the energy transition in the next thirty years, you need to come up with answers to these questions, or you will find the whole system coming to a halt. Lawmakers will say: if we cannot be sure that new types of gas will not damage pipelines and machines, we cannot introduce new legislation. Similarly, investors in gas infrastructure will be reluctant to invest the many billions that are needed. In the end it’s all about the numbers. When government and industry face major decisions, they need to be well-informed.”

A partnership with renewables

Another outcome: the gas industry now understands that to play a role in the energy transition means to join forces with other energy sectors such as wind power, solar and geothermal. “One of EDGaR’s major achievements is that we are now thinking in terms of the integration of energy systems,” says Broenink. “Look at how things were some fifty years ago: at that time I helped my mother carry the coal scuttle. Then gas came along. If you had asked then if the gas network could be used for other types of gas, the gas industry would have looked at you in amazement. But now, these new ideas can be brought into the debate. Thinking has changed tremendously.”

This change is needed, because the renewable energy sector is the natural partner of the gas industry, says Jepma. “Especially in this part of the world, wind power is very unreliable and it simply needs to be backed up by other sources. Natural gas is really the only logical solution. EDGaR introduced the gas industry to the idea that they will have to form a coalition with the renewable energy sector as their natural partner. That message has resonated.”

A third important spin-off of the EDGaR programme is that scientists now know each other and know how to find each other. This is a big boost for the quality of their research, says Jepma. “A research community that succeeds in collaborating and maintaining personal contacts can exchange information much easier. This is an important step toward a higher level of understanding. We have actually just gone one step further and set up a similar community covering the whole of north-western Europe: the European Institute for Gas and Energy Innovation (ERIG).”

EDGaR has been completed, but this does not mean that all questions have now been answered. Vermeulen, from Gasunie, would have preferred sharper conclusions in the second research cluster, which focused on future energy systems: “If I generate a lot of offshore wind power, what is the best way to carry this energy to the market? And in which form, as electricity or as hydrogen? We are only beginning to understand this type of question. Also, there is still a lot of uncertainty around legislation and taxation.”

Broenink, from Gasterra, is left with questions about the gas market of the future: “Gasterra used to operate in two types of trade. For forty years, this market was regulated, but it has been a liberalised market for fifteen years now. EDGaR has done a good job finding out more about the possibilities to feed new types of gas into the grid and the roles energy companies can play in this. The challenge, however, is to find the proper market model.”

The future of natural gas

Een EDGaR deel 2 komt er niet, zegt Jepma. “We hebben €22 miljoen uit nationale en Europese publieke middelen gekregen, maar dat was eenmalig.” De Haagse middelen voor dit soort onderzoek gaan nu naar het topsectorenbeleid, de TKI’s. De TKI gas heeft acht zogeheten ‘icoonprojecten’ voor toekomstig gas-research gedefinieerd die een brug slaan naar hernieuwbare energiebronnen. Dat kan gaan over biomassavergisting, kleinschalige toepassingen van LNG of omzetting van windenergie naar waterstof (power-to-gas).  Jepma: “Gas-research zou rond die iconen moeten worden gedrapeerd. Ook wat betreft de branding van gas richting het grote publiek, in de vorm van zichtbare demonstratieprojecten. Want die branding kan wat ons betreft nog wel een onsje beter.”

Daarnaast krijgt EDGaR een vervolg binnen een nieuw samenwerkingsverband dat op 2 juni 2015 is gesloten tussen zes Europese onderzoeksorganisaties: de European Research Institute for Gas and Energy Innovation (ERIG).

Heeft aardgas na EDGaR nog een mooie toekomst voor zich? Jepma is genuanceerd: “Ik denk dat de trend in Europa – meer renewables, minder gas – moeilijk valt te stoppen. Het grote vraagstuk zal zijn hoe het onvoorspelbare karakter van hernieuwbare bronnen valt op te lossen. De grote strijd zal gaan om welke opslagvorm van energie daar het beste voor is: aardgas via omzetting van stroom in waterstof, dus power-to-gas?  Of andere opslagvormen? Ik geloof in het eerste, namelijk dat het over een jaar of tien volkomen normaal is dat zonne- en windenergie wordt omgezet in waterstof. De toekomst voor aardgas zie ik zo: de komende 30 tot 40 jaar zal er een sterke coalitie ontstaan met hernieuwbare energie.”

By Karel Beckman, Pelle Matla, Hendrik Steringa