Production of biogas, biomethane and “green” hydrogen will have to skyrocket by at least 1,000% over the next three decades in order to reach the EU’s climate neutrality objective for 2050, an EU official has said.
In 2017, renewable gases already represented around 7% of renewable gross inland energy consumption in the EU, said Antonio Lopez-Nicolas, deputy head of unit at the European Commission’s energy department, making them “an important part” of the bloc’s energy mix.
But with Europe now aiming to reach climate neutrality by mid-century that percentage will need to “grow substantially,” the EU official told a EURACTIV event supported by French utility ENGIE last November.
Under EU long-term scenarios for 2050, where global warming is kept below 1.5°C, gaseous fuel consumption “would reach between 50 and 62.5% of today’s gross inland consumption” of gases, Lopez-Nicolas indicated.*
In million tons of oil equivalent, this represents “a big increase from 17 Mtoe to between 200 and 250 Mtoe of renewable gases,” the official told participants at the event – a jump of up to 1,370%.
As impressive as it sounds, getting there is not impossible, Lopez-Nicolas suggested. And the EU doesn’t start from scratch, with new EU targets on renewables and energy efficiency adopted just over a year ago that will facilitate the uptake of renewable gases in sectors such as heating and transport, he said.
Increasing production of renewable gases does raise environmental sustainability issues, however. And the Greens are at the forefront of this debate.
“We as Greens do acknowledge the role that renewable gases – be it biogas or hydrogen – have to play in a fully carbon-neutral world,” said Jutta Paulus, a German politician sitting with the Greens in the European Parliament.
But the Greens are reluctant to support renewable gases wholeheartedly at this stage, Paulus said. First, land available to produce more biogas or biomethane from agriculture is limited, she pointed out.
And energy losses incurred from water electrolysis means “green” hydrogen production from wind and solar power is not yet an attractive option, she added, pointing to losses of between 20 and 30% with current electrolysers.
“Let’s save those precious renewable and bio-gases for applications like heavy industry, long-distance transport, aviation and shipping where electrification is not possible in the short-term,” Paulus told participants at the EURACTIV event.
She also warned against oil and gas companies using hydrogen as an excuse to safeguard lucrative investments in fossil fuels.
“We should not see hydrogen as a life-jacket for the fossil fuel industry,” she warned, saying hydrogen from natural gas – currently the main way of producing hydrogen – may cause more global warming emission than thought due to methane leakage.
These warnings were echoed by Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of Copa-Cogeca, the EU farmers’ association.
“Biogas won’t be the saviour of the fossil fuel industry,” said Pesonen, pointing to a “trade-off” between land used for agriculture and energy crops.
Biogas production may provide an additional revenue stream for farmers, he said. But scaling up production raises environmental challenges, Pesonen added, predicting that biogas from agriculture will remain “localised” and come mainly as “a complement” to renewable electricity from wind and solar.
Still, production of renewable gases – biogas, biomethane and hydrogen – is expected to grow substantially in the coming decades, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
“In our 2050 scenario, we expect a fifteen-fold growth in bioenergy – from around 1 exajoule today to around 15 exajoules by 2050,” said Francisco Boshell, who leads IRENA’s work on renewable energy technology innovation. This is a 400% increase compared to the business-as-usual reference case, Boshell indicated.
In Europe, most of that growth is expected to focus on electricity production, Boshell said. Last year, France set an objective of injecting 10% of biomethane into the country’s gas network by 2030, similar to what Denmark is already doing. ENGIE, the French energy utility, wants to bring that to 100% by 2050, adding other low-carbon gases, such as hydrogen, to the mix.
The dramatic cost reduction of solar and wind electricity has made the production of eFuels more attractive, Boshell said, citing the “huge interest” in green hydrogen produced from water electrolysis.
“Around 19 exajoules of renewable hydrogen should be produced by 2050,” representing about 8% of energy demand by then, Boshell said. That will require “around 16% of all electricity produced” globally going into hydrogen production – or “approximately 4 Terawatts of renewable capacity” by 2050, he pointed out.
Gas consumption to go down
In the short term, however, natural gas will remain “unavoidable” for the energy transition, according to Didier Holleaux, executive vice-president at ENGIE in charge of supervising gas activities.
“The first priority is to replace coal, and we need natural gas as a complement to renewable energy, a lot of which is intermittent,” Holleaux said.
And in the medium to long-term, “gas has to be completely green”, he added, pointing to the potential of reaching “100% renewable gas” in France by 2050.
However, that will only be possible with a reduction in gas consumption, he stressed. Currently, France consumes 460 Terawatt-hours of gas per year, Holleaux said. “We believe that by 2050, it will be around 300 TWh,” he indicated – a reduction of about 34%.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]
* Editor’s note: EU figures on gross inland energy consumption were updated on 8 January 2020 following a request from the European Commission.