Now is the time to stop talking up the benefits of natural gas
The view that natural gas can act as an eco-friendly bridge in the transition from our use of coal to renewable energy has experienced a renaissance in the wake of the European war. Thus, the time is right to review the data behind the politics.
Gas shortages resulting from the war in Ukraine, combined with the subsequent massive rises in energy prices in Norway and Europe as a whole, have breathed new life into an old argument. Many commentators are talking about how much better things will be if we simply use gas-fired electricity rather than rejuvenating the old coal-fired power stations as is favoured by the EU.
And all this in the wake of the COP27 Climate Change Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in November last year at which, to the deep frustration of many, delegates failed to reach an agreement in the final declaration on the phasing out of fossil fuels.
Frustration – because planning for the further use of fossil fuels without solutions in place that reduce and remove emissions makes a mockery of the 1.5-degree global warming target. So, let’s take a look at the data for coal and natural gas.
A bad idea
It is true that gas-fired power stations generate only half the greenhouse gas emissions of their coal-fired equivalents.
However, only 30 percent of our gas is used for electricity generation. Most of it is dedicated to general heating purposes and industrial uses. An alternative to gas heating is the use of electricity, which to an increasing extent is now generated from renewable sources.
Gas used for heating produces two to three times more CO2 per kilowatt-hour than is emitted when heat pumps are run using electricity generated by gas-fired power stations. This also applies if the heat pumps are driven by electricity from the current energy mix favoured by the EU – a mix that also includes electricity generated from coal-fired power stations combined with an increasing proportion of renewables.
For this reason, the use of natural gas for heating is a bad idea if we still want to achieve our emissions targets.
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Conversion to hydrogen
The CO2 produced in our gas-fired hearths and cookers cannot be captured by our household extractor fans and chimneys. Thus, in practice, low-emission heating can only be achieved by means of the efficient and economical use of a combination of electricity, heat pumps, bioenergy and hydrogen.
The current method of converting natural gas to hydrogen in industrial contexts (without CCS/carbon management systems) results in emissions volumes equivalent to 2.5 per cent of the planet’s total CO2 emissions. This represents about 18 times the emissions generated by Norway.
Thus, it follows that natural gas can only act as a bridge towards the development of a ‘renewable’ society if it is converted into hydrogen as part of a system that also captures and sequesters the by-product CO2.
Norway unwise to continue with a blinkered view on gas
I have recently attended the COP27 conference at which the stated ambition was to implement a number of climate change mitigation initiatives. However, we also know that negotiations at the conference failed to result in agreement on any form of green industrial collaboration between Norway and the EU.
There may be many reasons for this. It is however clear that Norway is seeking greater levels of commitment in terms of collaboration and support for the further development and delivery of its oil and gas resources.
Hydrogen has been identified by many, including the IEA, EU and USA, as one of the key components required to drive the green transition.
It is thus unwise for Norway to undermine negotiations by continuing with its blinkered views on natural gas, which we all know is causing irreparable damage to the climate. If we want to make progress, we have to offer a sustainable solution.
Ninety-five percent cut
Hydrogen derived from natural gas, combined with CCS, is capable of resulting in a climate footprint involving a reduction of emissions from current gas-based hydrogen production by more than 95 per cent.
This represents a good initiative, especially during a transition phase in which Europe is building out increasing levels of renewable energy. We also recognise that hydrogen derived from renewable sources and electrolysis will achieve total dominance in a ‘renewable’ society.
We can start by reaching agreement on a binding collaboration with the EU countries (Norway’s most important energy customers) involving the gradual replacement of the natural gas we send in pipelines to Europe by hydrogen. This can be achieved using a process of gradual upscaling. For example, Norway could export 20 per cent of its gas in the form of hydrogen by 2028 and build towards 90 per cent hydrogen and 10 per cent natural gas by 2040.
An important spin-off
The ultimate ambition must be 100 per cent hydrogen. However, some natural gas will be needed for use in industrial processes from which the carbon emissions can be stored either in the product or in underground and subsea reservoirs using CCS technologies.
This solution will open opportunities for access to CO2 storage capacity in the North Sea and thus promote the development of a joint European CCS infrastructure. This is an important spin-off because climate neutrality cannot be achieved without the use of CCS or hydrogen. Such storage capacity is also required if we are to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
Challenging the war-profiteering rhetoric
It is useful for Norway to keep this lesson in energy realities in mind, especially in the light of the war profiteering rhetoric being expressed by President Macron in Paris. Macron maintains that Norway is lining its pockets with the revenues from the export and sale of high-priced natural gas, not to mention the damage caused by the CO2 emitted as a by-product. And at the cost of an economy and a solidarity that we depend on.
One approach to getting started is for Norway to launch a system of practical education, research and innovation collaboration with our largest export countries. Germany may be a good place to start, if only because the Norwegian energy companies, to their credit, are now looking into the possibility of exporting hydrogen.
The world is more than Europe
Both Norway and Germany are looking to the North Sea as a platform for the green transition. Such a model could also be exported to our other European trading partners.
But the world is more than Europe. Norway has to acknowledge that our expertise in these areas has to be shared with the global majority for which many of the negotiations at COP27 were intended.
This article was first published in the financial daily Dagens Næringsliv on 6 December 2022 and is reproduced here with the permission of the paper.