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Gas or hydrogen: how many bridges we need for the energy transition?

The European Commission adopted the long-awaited strategies for energy system integration and hydrogen to bolster the European Green Deal and the green recovery.

Renewable electricity is expected to decarbonise a large share of the European Union energy consumption by 2050, but not all of it. In this regard, hydrogen has a strong potential to bridge some of this gap.

However, also gas has for a long time been defined as a bridge to a future 100 per cent built on renewable energy sources. A definition of great importance for all those countries, like the Central European ones, heavily reliant on coal and other fossil-fuels and for who the energy transition could take a longer time.

Gas infrastructure can transport and store hydrogen

Early in May, Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President in charge of the EU Green Deal, acknowledged that the existing gas infrastructure is a valuable asset for the development of the hydrogen value chain within the EU.

During the pandemic crisis, the European gas infrastructure proved to be able to ensure essential services, delivering uninterrupted energy across the continent to continually produce electricity, fuel industry and transport, as well as providing affordable energy for cooking, heating and cooling to European citizens.

Brussels-based association Gas Infrastructure Europe (GIE) welcomed the Commission’s newly-adopted strategies noting that, combined with the assets of the existing European gas infrastructure, they set the EU on track in strengthening its industrial leadership while at the same time reaching its 2050 climate neutrality target.

“Using the existing European gas infrastructure to transport hydrogen will enhance the decarbonisation of the so-called hard-to-abate sectors (buildings, heavy-duty transport, aviation, shipping, or industrial processes),” commented Boyana Achovski, GIE Secretary General.

“It will additionally allow the establishment of a more integrated energy system that will welcome an increasing share of renewables and will offer the most cost-effective and sustainable solution to EU citizens, contributing to economic and social recovery,” she added.

Gas transmission network can be fit for transporting large volumes of hydrogen with relatively minor investments. Also, gas storages can provide large seasonal storage for hydrogen. Moreover, LNG terminals are well-positioned to develop new services contributing to energy transition: EU’s Ports could be transformed into centres for offshore electricity, enabling the global trade of renewable hydrogen or synthetic fuels and LNG terminals could become the entry door for liquid hydrogen.

Some innovative hydrogen-related projects are already present in the CEE region and would greatly benefit from appropriate regulatory measures that ensure the creation of a competitive market.

GIE reported that Hungarian Gas Storage plans to develop a new project of hydrogen storage in depleted fields. After the production of hydrogen from renewable energies, hydrogen-enriched natural gas would replace part of the own gas consumption of the storage sites of the country and then be injected into the grid using the existing gas infrastructure for domestic and industrial uses. In Hungary, energy from photovoltaic and wind turbines is expected to strongly increase, but the most critical point in the spread of renewable energy is how to store it when needed. This project is offering a solution to store the surplus, helping the country achieve its carbon emission targets in the long-term.

Furthermore, the Baltic Pipe project, that will be effective by October 2022, could be used not only for natural gas but also for greener gases such as biomethane or green hydrogen as well as for CO2 used in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). At the same time, it will enable the supply of gas from Poland to the Danish market, reducing 70 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually by utilising gas combined with wind. Such a reduction would contribute with 58 per cent to Poland’s 2030 target.

Also Eurogas, the association representing the European gas wholesale, retail and distribution sectors expects the foundations of a framework for a new era of gas being laid. A foundation that could secure Europe’s leading position in developing and manufacturing, not only deploying, clean technologies and creating secure non-seasonal jobs for Europeans.

“There are many different pathways to achieve an energy system integration for a climate-neutral Europe,” said Eurogas Secretary General, James Watson.

“One thing is for sure, these Commission documents confirm that we will need gaseous molecules to deliver climate neutrality in the most affordable and cost-effective way for EU citizens. This is going to be a step-change for the gas sector and one which we are embracing and leading, we have already called for targets for renewable and decarbonised gas to be set for 2030.”

According to a recent Eurogas study the EU can save 4.1 trillion euros by 2050 by using a mix of energy carriers to achieve carbon neutrality. In the buildings sector, the EU can save 10 trillion euros in subsidies to retrofit Europe’s building stock if it uses already available and affordable gaseous solutions instead of trying to massively subsidise electrification of heat.

A contradictory message

The European Commission recognised the importance of increasing the share of renewables gases in the EU’s energy mix. However, gaseous fuels are expected to continue to play an important role. By 2050, the share of natural gas is projected to reduce to 20 per cent and most of the remaining 80 per cent gaseous fuels should be of renewable origin. But the future mix of these gaseous energy carriers – biogas, biomethane, hydrogen or synthetic gases – is hard to project and the gas market regulatory framework should be re-examined.

The NGO Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe find this to be in contrast with the need to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C and avoid dangerous climate change.

“We expected to see an immediate effort to deploy renewables-based hydrogen production and invest accordingly, whereas the Hydrogen Strategy keeps the door open for the use of dirty fossil fuels and misses out on indicating a fossil gas phase-out date, which will not get us closer or faster to the Paris Agreement objective,” highlighted Esther Bollendorff, EU Gas Policy Coordinator at CAN Europe. “We need to reduce our emissions by at least 65 per cent by 2030 already and we don’t see how prolonged fossil gas use or cleaning the gas sector as stated by Commissioner Simson can be compatible with limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C.”

Fossil gas-based hydrogen is made by splitting gas molecules, which results in CO2 escaping into the atmosphere. That’s how more than 95 per cent of the 8 million tonnes of hydrogen produced in the EU every year is made today, emitting between 60 million and 70 million tonnes of CO2. The use of fossil gas across the supply chain does not only emit carbon dioxide, but also methane which causes 25 per cent of global warming experienced today with the gas and oil sector being one of the leading emitters.

“A full decarbonisation of the economy will require the EU to look at energy and non-energy solutions,” added Mrs Bollendorff.

“We should significantly reduce energy demand – it can be halved by 2050 – and multiply renewable energy supply to reach 100 per cent by 2040 – a decade earlier than the current target – with existing and proven technologies.”

“The measures proposed by the Energy System Integration Strategy are not sufficient to move in the needed direction to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C,” she concluded.

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