Do everyday citizens care about renewable gas?

The virtues and shortcomings of renewable gas are being talked about more and more. But are people actually aware of it? [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Renewable gas.

The idea of renewable gas is relatively new and the average European citizen would be forgiven for not knowing what it entails. Industry and institutional representatives are split over how much people actually need to understand.

Renewable gas is being touted as a way for Europe to make natural gas supply greener, decarbonise the agricultural sector and utilise surplus renewable energy, which continues to be wasted as storage issues persist.

Sector representatives discussed the future of the gas industry at an annual conference organised by industry association Eurogas in Brussels on Friday (27 October) and the focus was on the prospects of renewable gas in Europe.

Eurogas President Klaus Schäfer welcomed the fact that “the EU is progressively recognising the role of gas in the energy transition. The topic of power-to-gas is also gaining traction.”

He added that making use of “quick wins” and using existing infrastructure and resources more efficiently could help the European Union smash its 2030 targets. Synthetic gas fits into this plan nicely, as it can be injected into existing grid systems.

But Climate Action Network Europe’s Stephan Singer warned that the Paris Agreement targets, in particular the full decarbonisation of the economy, mean that continued use of fossil fuels in the transition has to be carefully approached. He pointed out that 25% of the EU’s emissions come from gas.

Singer suggested that the gas industry should focus its efforts on encouraging and investing in renewable electricity generation, as this would have the knock-on effect of boosting power-to-gas and renewable hydrogen potential.

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The head of one of Germany’s main natural gas associations told EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel that the German government should back the fuel source as part of its energy transition, as well as advocating the use of power-to-gas technology.

Making the best of it

Doing more with what Europe already has was a central theme of the conference. President of the European Biogas Association, Jan Štambaský, revealed that existing infrastructure is capable of “methanising” 400TWh of electricity every year to create biomethane.

That figure is the same as France’s entire annual electricity production.

The biogas expert also added that utilising technology like power-to-methane is the only way to decarbonise agriculture, which is “a sector that is as intensive as transport”.

Axel Wietfeld of German energy company Uniper also highlighted the problem of wasted electricity, which he claimed stood at 4TWh in 2015. That amount of energy is enough to power the city of Hamburg for four months.

Storage issues still persist and the environmental impact of the production of batteries, due to cobalt mining in the Congo and Chinese production standards, is still a concern.

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Electricity produced from natural gas has matched power generated from coal in OECD countries. But Europe’s gas self-sufficiency dropped below 50% for the very first time as well.

A public concern?

But are the general public even aware of renewable gas? The question was put to the panel and drew a variety of responses. Most agreed that citizens know little about the technology but opinion differed over how much the man on the street really needs to understand.

Štambaský acknowledged that a lack of awareness could be problematic but insisted that it is not a surprise the technology is unknown because it is still early days, adding that renewable electricity generation is still relatively in its infancy.

Head of advanced energy production at the European Commission José Cotta shared a different view: “It doesn’t matter if citizens know what it is. It only matters if misperceptions affect policymaking. Technology take-up it more important than awareness.”

Cotta referred back to a remark made by Klaus Schäfer earlier in the morning, where he compared the gas industry to mobile phone company Nokia and urged his sector to learn from the Swedish firm’s loss of market leader position.

The Commission official elaborated, saying: “People never knew that they needed smartphones. We never knew that we needed an automobile instead of a horse. But look at where we are now.”

As the issue of what to do with surplus energy continues, renewable gas looks set to play a greater role than before in the EU’s energy transition. Whether everyday people will realise it is powering and heating their homes will remain to be seen.