'Gas must reposition itself in the new energy world'

September 28, 2010 | 00:00

'Gas must reposition itself in the new energy world'

Natural gas is promoted by the gas industry as an ideal “transition fuel” on the road to a renewable energy future. Thanks to their flexibility and low CO2-emissions, gas-fired power stations are supposed to be the ideal “balancing partners” for intermittent renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. But how this “partnership” will work in practice, and what its financial and technological consequences will be, is by no means clear. A new research programme in the Netherlands, EDGaR, will try to throw light on these and other questions. EDGaR, Europe’s largest research programme focusing on the role of gas in the energy transition, will actively seek cooperation with foreign institutions in Italy, Germany, the UK, France and elswhere, says its Scientific Director Catrinus Jepma.

‘Natural gas’, observes Catrinus Jepma in his office in the Dutch “gas capital” Groningen, ‘has a colourless image. You don’t hear much about it.’

Jepma, professor of Energy and Sustainability at the University of Groningen and one of the foremost natural gas experts in the Netherlands, is a happy man these days. As the scientific director of the new research programme EDGaR, he has just acquired a budget of €44 million to do gas research over the next five years. EDGaR is a public-private partnership, supported by Dutch universities, knowledge institutions and private companies. (See box below.)

The reason for the strong Dutch interest in gas research is obvious. The Netherlands is the largest gas exporter in the EU and probably has the world’s finest gas transport and storage infastructure. Although domestic gas reserves are declining, the country intends to retain its role as the gas hub of North Western Europe. However, as Jepma points out, the role of gas in the energy world is changing. ‘The big question is, what will be the role of gas in the transition to a sustainable, low CO2 future? That is the fundamental issue our programme addresses. We may be ahead in the Netherlands in what you might call conventional gas knowledge. But we have to invest in research into new gas developments if we want to stay ahead.’

No policy

To be sure, the answers EDGaR will come up with are not only of interest to the Netherlands. They are relevant for the entire international gas industry and all countries that rely on gas in any significant way for their energy needs. ‘The classic role of gas will change’, observes Jepma. ‘Right now the gas sector

‘Natural gas has a colourless image. You don’t hear much about it’
is basking in the unconventional gas revolution. They think the gas-business can simply go on as usual for many more decades. But we cannot avoid the effects the transition to sustainable energy will have on gas. Other energy sources are increasingly manifesting themselves. So gas needs to adjust itself. It needs to reposition itself in the new energy world.’

The problem is, he adds, that ‘you don’t hear much about gas’ in public energy discussions. ‘Everybody talks about nuclear power and about renewable energy. Coal has made a comeback thanks to the discussion around carbon capture and storage. Oil is needed for the transport sector. And gas – well, it’s just there. There is no policy for it, no targets. No one says we should use less gas, no one says we should use more. I don’t know why gas has such a colourless image, but there you are.’ Jepma suspects that in the energy industry gas is still regarded as a byproduct of oil, although that is rapidly changing. ‘Oil multinationals such as Shell increasingly rely on gas. Indeed, they are evolving from oil into gas companies. For them it will be very important how gas will come to be positioned.’

The CO2-reduction potential offered by “fuel switch” is a case in point. ‘Merely by switching from coal-fired to gas-fired power stations, we could achieve considerable CO2-reductions’, says Jepma. ‘But what you see happening here in the Netherlands is exactly the reverse. We are building coal-fired power stations. That’s strange.’

Green gas

If gas is to achieve a significant role in the energy transition, a lot of research still needs to be done, says Jepma. He points to the example of biogas, also called “green gas”. ‘In countries like Germany and the Netherlands there are targets for the use of green gas. But if you want to boost green gas, a lot of questions need to be answered. What is it exactly? What quality standards should it meet? What are the conditions under which it can be admitted into the pipeline system? Who decides this? What are the risks? What are the costs and who will pay them – for example, the costs of compression. How can it be marketed? Do you issue green certificates? If so, who monitors the system? And what is going on in other countries? What does Brussels think? So the list goes on. You can see that lots of preparations need to be made before green gas can become part of the energy system. Our research programme will be instrumental in this.’

According to Jepma, Germany is far ahead of the Netherlands when it comes to the production of green gas on the basis of fermentation. However, the Netherlands has thought more about the marketing

‘Nobody says we should use less gas, no one says we should use more gas’
aspects of green gas. ‘Gasunie, the Dutch gas transmission system operator, has developed a certification system called Vertogas. That’s not unimportant. If you want to boost or subsidise green gas, you have to know how much is fed into the grid and by whom.’ Still, the contribution fermentation-based biogas can make to the total energy supply will be limited, says Jepma. The technology of biomass gasification has much more potential. ‘Biomass gasification is certainly a subject we will be looking at within EDGaR. Our knowledge of this technology is still quite basic.’

Another example of an important research area is the role of gas as backup for wind power. Jepma: ‘Germany, the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands together plan to build 40,000 MW of offshore wind power in the North Sea. This will lead to a sizable amount of fairly unpredictable power production, which will need to be balanced with flexible and reliable backup capacity. It is generally assumed that this could be provided by gas-fired power stations. But we don’t really know yet how this will work out in practice. How do you do this technically? How much will it cost? What if decentralised power production will also grow, what effects will this have on the system? There is a lot we still need to find out.’

Jepma thinks it is entirely possible that one of the conclusions of the research will be that it is not an optimal solution to transport gas to residential areas. Currently most houses in the Netherlands are connected to the gas grid, but, says Jepma, many experts think that this will not be the case anymore in new residential areas in the future. ‘Heat could be supplied in different ways. We all know that our current power production systems generate a large excess of heat. We will have to see how we can make better use of this. The technology to transport heat has already improved quite a bit.’

Strategic aspects

EDGaR will also conduct research into the strategic, political and economic aspects of the international gas market. Jepma: ‘The liberalisation and integration of the EU energy market has led to a further internationalisation of the gas market. New players have become active, LNG supplies are increasing, domestic reserves are declining. But we actually know fairly little about how this new gas market functions. We think it is important that our knowledge of the gas market is improved.’

Much of the knowledge that will be generated by EDGaR will be made publicly available. ‘One of the great strengths of EDGaR is that it is a public-private partnership’, says Jepma. ‘Right now public and

‘We actually know very little about how this new gas market functions’
private research is not very well connected to each other. On the one hand you have consultants who do custom-made research for gas companies, but who do not share the results of their work. On the other hand you have academic researchers, who do research that often does not suit the needs of the business world. With EDGaR we want to produce results that are useful to the gas sector and governments.’

Jepma will also actively seek cooperation with other research groups across Europe. ‘There are maybe ten groups in Europe that do gas research – at most. We want to exchange information with all our colleagues in different countries. We don’t want to focus only on the Netherlands. It is important that EDGaR becomes a European project.’

About EDGaR

The total budget of EDGaR is €44 million for 5 years, half of which is made available through national and local subsidies and half by the research partners. The partners in the EDGaR programme are: the University of Groningen, Gasunie, Technical University Delft, GasTerra, Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN), gas service company Kiwa, Hanze University Groningen and the Dutch distribution system operators Enexis, Liander and Stedin. EDGaR will hold two conferences each year, one of which will be open to the public.

Ruud Lubbers, former Prime Minister of the Netherlands and a member of the advisory board of EDGaR, had this to say about the project: ‘If you look at gas in the Netherlands, there is a three-phase development. In the first phase, gas was made the pillar of the energy supply for Dutch households. In the second phase the national gas infrastructure was embedded in an international network. We exported our national expertise and built an international infrastructure – what we call the gas roundabout. EDGaR is now exploring the third stage, in which natural gas will have to position itself in relation to the sustainable energy system of the future. It addresses the question, how can you use gas in a way that is secure for the future and how do we use it in a sustainable way?’

For more information about the EDGaR program, you can consult the latest issue of the EDI Quarterly, a publication of the Energy Delta Institute (EDI) in Groningen. In addition to an interview with Jepma, the Quarterly includes interviews with Bert Wiersema, Business Director of EDGaR, and team leaders Dr. Künneke (Delft technical University), Professor Levinsky (Kema Netherlands), and Professort Wolters (Kiwa Gas Technology). An overview of all the project proposals that have been approved so far is also included. 

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