Natural gas is a ‘caveat’ in energy transition, EU admits

"The use of natural gas will probably be necessary to shift from coal to sustainable energy. I think this is a caveat I have to add,” said Frans Timmermans, the Commission's executive vice-president in charge of the European Green Deal. [European Union, 2020. Source: EC - Audiovisual Service]

While fossil fuel projects are in theory excluded from EU funding, natural gas will continue to play a key role in replacing coal while helping to build a hydrogen infrastructure at least cost, EU climate chief Frans Timmermans said on Thursday (28 May).

“We try to steer away as much as possible from fossil fuel projects,” Timmermans said during a press briefing about the EU’s proposed recovery plan from the COVID-19 crisis.

But he also pointed to some grey areas, highlighting the role of gas in the transition to a net-zero emission energy system relying chiefly on renewable electricity.

“There’s one thing I have to acknowledge: in some areas of transition, the use of natural gas will probably be necessary to shift from coal to sustainable energy.”

“I think this is a caveat I have to add,” Timmermans said.

Coal power generation saw an unprecedented decline in 2019, partly due to natural gas and partly because of renewables, according to data published earlier this year.

And even though the notion of gas as a “clean” fossil fuel is now increasingly challenged because of methane leaks, natural gas still emits on average 50% less CO2 than coal when burned in power plants.

Power shift: EU coal output falls 24% in 2019

Global warming emissions from the power sector fell by 12% last year, led by a steep decline in coal power generation, which was replaced half by natural gas and half by renewables, according to fresh data published on Wednesday (5 February).

A “dual use” gas infrastructure

More importantly, the Commission believes Europe’s existing network of gas pipelines and LNG terminals could be a valuable asset in the transition to hydrogen, a clean fuel which emits no greenhouse gases when burned.

While the Commission is looking at “a dedicated hydrogen infrastructure,” Timmermans said repurposing existing gas networks could help reduce transition costs.

“It is important that we look at existing natural gas and LNG infrastructure to see to what extent it is already usable for hydrogen or can be adapted to the use of hydrogen,” he said.

“The more we can have dual use of infrastructure, the better it is – also to make the transition to green hydrogen affordable in the future,” he added.

“I’m really excited by those possibilities and we will do a lot of work in that direction,” Timmermans said.

Hydrogen Europe, an industry association, has worked on developing a “pure hydrogen backbone” to connect the industrial clusters of northern Europe – in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

That way, production and demand for hydrogen could be balanced at all times and avoid costly infrastructure developments, says Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, secretary-general of Hydrogen Europe.

And according to him, “the cheapest way would be the reconversion of existing pipelines, which is technically absolutely possible”.

Gas Infrastructure Europe (GIE), another industry association, has identified four main pathways to develop a hydrogen infrastructure, including the direct shipment of hydrogen to Europe via pipelines or the conversion of other gases into hydrogen after they land at LNG import terminals.

GIE is currently preparing a detailed cost-benefit study for publication in October which will assess the pros and cons of those different options.

“Investments in retrofitting and upgrading of the current natural gas infrastructure for renewable and low-carbon gases will be essential,” said Boyana Achovski, secretary-general of GIE.

Gas industry urged to 'accelerate' transition to hydrogen

Hydrogen has become a central element of EU plans to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century. The key question now is how to accelerate the transition and upgrade the gas infrastructure, policymakers say.

“We need to accelerate” the gas industry’s conversion to …

Oil and gas producers applauded the “pragmatic and inclusive approach” adopted by the Commission vice-president.

“Gas and its infrastructure are extremely versatile,” said François-Régis Mouton, Europe director at the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP).

“Be it natural – to replace coal – or decarbonised into hydrogen, gas is always an enabler for renewables and an efficient way to reduce emissions,” Mouton said. “This is why supporting the production of clean hydrogen from natural gas reforming with CCS or pyrolysis is so important,” he added.

However, for green activists, investing in gas infrastructure is a no-go.

“Timmermans confirmed our fears that he’s willing to give money to fossil gas pipelines under the cover of supposedly ‘clean’ hydrogen,” said Tara Connolly, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

She urged the Commission to exclude any kind of EU funding for hydrogen produced from fossil gas. “Without this guarantee, hydrogen is simply the gas industry in sheep’s clothing,” Connolly said.

EU clarifies fossil fuel stance: 'No lock-in into natural gas'

When European Union leaders signed off on a pledge to reach “climate neutrality” by 2050, they also eventually rang the death knell of the natural gas industry as we know it.

Hydrogen strategy due in June

Earlier this year, the EU executive said it would launch a “Clean Hydrogen Alliance” after the summer break, in an effort to build a hydrogen supply chain in Europe.

The Commission is also preparing an EU hydrogen strategy and has presented ideas in a roadmap, before the strategy’s publication in June.

“Clean hydrogen is one of the top priorities in our energy transition,” Timmermans emphasised, saying he sees “huge potential” in hydrogen “both as a source of energy and as a storage facility” to stock up excess production of wind and solar power.

“We will be investing a lot in making clean hydrogen part of our energy mix in the future,” he added, in particular for sectors such as steelmaking, which cannot easily switch to electricity.

“That’s the future of steel,” Timmermans said.

Hydrogen will be ‘central’ to energy system integration, EU says

Hydrogen will be a “central element” in the Energy System Integration Strategy that the European Commission will present in June, the EU’s energy chief kadri Simson has said.

During an online debate on Tuesday (5 May), Simson flagged the upcoming …

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

Subscribe to our newsletters