From the editor [GasTransitions]
I had a new boiler installed the other day. I went for an old familiar high-efficiency boiler running on natural gas. I did consider alternatives. But what was I to do? Buy an electric heat pump? I have no place to put it up. I am not sure it would work well. I am concerned about the noise it might make. I have a small roof where I could put up a few solar panels, perhaps enough to heat my water but certainly not my house. I can’t make use of district heating.
My predicament I know is typical for many people in the world. In the Netherlands, where I live, natural gas is a sensitive topic. The government has decided that all buildings should be off natural gas by 2050, and about a fifth of them by 2030. My town, Amsterdam, has proclaimed it wants to be “natural gas free” in 2040. How? No one knows. The city’s “regional energy plan” says that “in addition to solar and wind energy, Amsterdam is looking for new, affordable and future-proof sources of heating, such as geothermal, residual heat from data centres and aquathermal energy.” The results of this search are not in yet.
The Netherlands is not the only country that has entered the home heating decarbonisation contest. In this issue of Gas Transitions, we look at home heating policies in the US, UK and Germany. The stories in these three countries are different yet very much alike. In all countries, decarbonising heating systems turns out to be much more difficult than switching to zero-carbon electricity generation. For one thing, electricity production is centralised, home heating is distributed. It affects people – all people – directly, which makes it politically sensitive too.
Malcolm Keay, researcher at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, observes in a recent paper that the main problem in the UK housing market is the lack of a coherent and consistent government policy. He argues the government should take a “systems approach to energy policy” rather than the typical “piecemeal approach”, but this is something the government “is not accustomed to”.
That does not just apply to the UK government, of course. It is a failing of most governments. Perhaps that is why so much hope is invested these days in hydrogen, which seems to offer a kind of “systems solution” for the energy transition. Even though its proponents may stress that hydrogen is not a “silver bullet”, its popularity owes a lot to the hope that in future we could have a complete “hydrogen economy” to replace today’s “fossil fuel economy”.
And yes, hydrogen is popular. Noé van Hulst, experienced energy diplomat, former member of the Board of Directors of the IEA, who now serves as “hydrogen ambassador” for the Dutch government, told me in an interview that the word “hydrogen” gets more online hits in Germany than “Angela Merkel” or “Donald Trump”, at least on the website of one big newspaper. Van Hulst is convinced that for the natural gas industry, there is only one way forward, which is to jump on the hydrogen bandwagon.
Not everybody is as optimistic. Paul Martin, a Canadian energy specialist, engineer, environmentalist and renewable energy supporter, takes a more critical view. In an interview we publish in this issue of Gas Transitions, he points out an inconvenient truth: before we can even talk about producing the huge amounts of hydrogen we would need for our transport and heating systems, he says, we first need to replace the existing production of fossil-based hydrogen. That’s a huge challenge in itself, which we have not even begun to tackle.
How huge? Well, as you can read in our News section, Shell and Dutch gas network operator Gasunie has just announced a bold plan (just a plan, no more) to build up to 10 gigawatts of offshore wind in the North Sea by 2040 and to build the equivalent amount of electrolysis capacity to turn the wind energy into hydrogen. If you consider that the biggest electrolyser in the Netherlands at this moment is 1 MW, you can see how ambitious this plan is. It would cost tens of billions of euros. So how much hydrogen would this one project produce? According to the companies: 880,000 tons. What they don’t say in their press release, though, is that existing production of “grey”, highly carbon-intensive hydrogen, in the Netherlands is around 1.4 million tons. In other words, the project may be a big step for Shell, it’s a small step for mankind.
I hope you will enjoy the second issue of Gas Transitions. Please send your comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t forget: we welcome external contributions. They will be published, with free access, on our website.
Available Exclusively to NGW Subscribers:
Volume 1, Issue 2 - March 9, 2020
How will the gas industry evolve in the low-carbon world of the future?
Will natural gas be a bridge or a destination?
Could it become the foundation of a global hydrogen economy, in combination with CCS?
How big will “green” hydrogen and biogas become?
What will be the role of LNG and bio-LNG in transport?
Gas Transitions is an independent monthly magazine providing news, insights and opinions on the evolving role of gas in an increasingly low-carbon energy system.
Available monthly to NGW Premium Subscribers.
In this Issue:
Hydrogen envoy Noé van Hulst
For the natural gas industry, hydrogen is the chance to become part of the energy transition.
Hydrogen critic Paul Martin
We need to make existing hydrogen production renewable before we can talk about other uses.
Royal Society makes case for ammonia economy
In a recent Policy Briefing, the British Royal Society makes the case for the production of “green ammonia”, based on renewable energy sources.
European trading scheme for green gases, Shell reaches for “green” hydrogen sky, Australia goes for “blue” hydrogen, and more Gas Transition news.
SPECIAL FEATURE: Natural gas in buildings
The US, UK and Germany are all looking for ways to “green” their home heating systems.