Bridge or blockade? The role of gas in the transition to renewable energy

Energy transition

This Wednesday, the EU heads of state and government will be discussing the Energy Union. Wendel Trio, Director of Europe’s huge Climate Action Network has lobbied several governments throughout Europe on getting off of fossil fuels. He discusses its importance below. 

This Op-Ed was published on on 17.3.2015

By Wendel Trio, Director of Climate Action Network Europe

The ongoing transition of global energy systems replaces fossil fuels with renewable energy such as wind, solar, and biomass. Renewable sources of energy are rapidly growing in use due to declining costs, and, at the same time, concerns about pollution and climate change caused by fossil fuels are mounting. Both of these factors cast a shadow over the future of coal, oil, and gas companies, as this transition puts an end to their 200-year reign. Obviously, they will not go quietly.

In order to survive in the market, coal, oil, and gas are trying to present themselves as modern and harmless industries that can be part of the transition to clean energy. This is why gas companies put effort into promoting natural gas as a bridge to a low-carbon future and a flexible backup for renewables on windless or cloudy days.

The future of the gas industry is in fact far less promising. In order to stop the earth’s climate from spinning out of control, most of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves – coal and oil, but also gas – must remain in the ground. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the scale and speed needed to prevent the worst effects of climate change requires significantly improving energy efficiency and switching to 100 percent renewables as fast as possible. Science tells us that the world energy systems must be fossil-fuel free by 2050.

The role of natural gas in the transition of our energy systems has been intensely debated. We agree that natural gas can indeed serve as a short- to medium-term “bridging” fuel until renewable energy becomes more dominant and, eventually, our energy system is fully based on renewables.

A transition phase is needed because it is not possible to immediately switch from a large-scale, centralized fossil- and nuclear-fuel-based energy system to a full renewable energy supply, with a significant share produced on a local scale (by citizens, communities, and small- and medium-sized companies). While remaining firmly committed to the promotion of renewable sources of energy, we therefore accept that conventional natural gas can play a role in the transition.

The role of gas, however, has to be strictly limited so that it will not block the low-carbon transition. This requires meeting two preconditions:

First, gas must be used efficiently, in appropriately scaled combined heat and power (C.H.P.) plants. Producing both heat and power in one facility allows for making use of all the input energy. Traditional, centralized fossil-fuel plants, which produce only electricity, use just a fraction of the input fuel, thus wasting most of it.

In the longer term, a decreasing demand for heat (resulting, for example, from better insulation of buildings) and the large potential for producing heat directly from renewable energy sources will limit the need for further expansion of C.H.P. plants.

If gas is used to produce electricity only, it should be limited to dispatchable, backup uses. When there is low electricity demand, or high wind or solar production, gas plants can be switched off or run at reduced power. In the longer term, renewable electricity sources such as thermal solar plants, geothermal, hydro, biomass, and biogas can gradually phase out the need for natural gas. The gas plants and pipelines would then progressively be converted into transporting biogas.

Second, we cannot keep investing in new gas import infrastructure. If we do, it will lock us into fossil fuels for decades, thereby blocking the transition to renewable energy.

In the European Union, much of the existing gas import infrastructure, especially for liquid natural gas, is currently not being used to its full capacity. Moreover, demand is not expected to increase significantly in any of the EU’s scenarios in its Energy Roadmap 2050. On the contrary, according to the European Commission, a 40 percent efficiency target by 2030 would reduce gas imports by 40 percent. Therefore, European decision-makers should not back the further expansion of gas import infrastructure, but instead decrease dependency on the overall import of gas.

Sadly, in the current discussions on the newest EU’s flagship energy project, the Energy Union, this idea has not been given nearly enough attention. The political support that currently exists for an Energy Union must be capitalized on in the best possible way. It needs to be expressed in ambitious policies, which will put energy savings and renewable energy first.