Natural gas is not a transitional fuel, so let’s stop saying it –

Instead of being promoted as a ‘transitional fuel’, gas could be better described as a fuel of last resort, with the caveat that it is not the only one: other technologies are advancing in the role of fuel. balancing electrical systems, writes Julian Popov.

Julian Popov is a member of the European Climate Foundation, President of the Building Performance Institute Europe, former Minister of Environment and Water of Bulgaria.

Gas is widely marketed as a transition or bridge fuel. The idea is that on the road from coal to renewables, we have to go through gas which emits, to the point of burning only half of the CO2 emissions. But if we look at countries that have significantly reduced coal in power generation, we will see that coal is not replaced by gas and does not behave as a transitional fuel. Countries are reducing coal, but gas consumption does not increase but stays the same or even decreases.

The UK is a prime example. In 2012, charcoal production peaked at 40%. Today, coal generates less than 3% of UK electricity, and it is on track to be phased out completely by 2024. Over the past two decades, demand for gas has remained stable. In addition, both gas and nuclear have shown signs of relative decline over the past five years.

Germany is a unique case because of its commitment to shut down nuclear power by the end of 2022. Over the past decade, it has reduced its coal-fired electricity production by 44% and its nuclear production by 49%. %. Amid this massive drop, gas production only rose 13 percent (or an absolute change of 1.9 percentage points).

With some temporary and seasonal variations, the trend is similar in Denmark, Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary and other European countries. In most cases, gas demand remains stable or decreases despite the availability of underutilized gas production capacity which could be activated at the push of a button.

Between 2010 and 2020, the production of coal in the EU (including the UK) fell by exactly half. Gas did not replace lost coal production, but also declined, modestly, by 7%. The trend is also visible globally: over the past 10 years, coal production has increased from 40% to 34%, while the share of gas-fired power generation has remained the same at around 22 %. There are national exceptions to this rule, but that doesn’t change the general trend.

The reality is that gas is not a substitute for coal. So far, coal has been replaced mainly by renewables and energy efficiency in power generation.

The other two major gas consuming sectors, construction and industry, are also unlikely to support the idea of ​​gas as a transitional fuel. In both sectors, the trend is to abandon gas. Countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria and others with a high level of gasification for home heating are introducing policies to reduce gas for heating and replace it with heat pumps, very insolation. efficient and renewable energies. The industry is also increasingly interested in hydrogen.

The expectation that gas will be the transitional fuel in transportation is also not happening. Battery-powered vehicles have already won the race for passenger cars, and with the jury still on long-distance buses and freight transport, the verdict is unlikely to be in favor of gasoline.

It should be noted that the tendency for gas not to replace coal occurred when gas prices were low and the cost of renewables and especially batteries was still high. With the cost of renewables and batteries falling dramatically and gas prices soaring, gas is likely to start following the more pronounced downward trend of coal. If we add the higher carbon reduction ambition of the European Green Deal, we can be sure that gas has missed the boat of the energy transition both metaphorically and literally.

This does not mean that gas does not have a role in the energy transition. This role, however, is not a transitional fuel and could be best described as a fuel of last resort – when energy efficiency, renewables, storage and demand response leave a void, that void can. be filled with gas. After all, gas still acts as a fuel that balances the intermittent production of renewable energy, although this role should not be overstated. A wide range of technologies are advancing towards the equilibrium position for electrical systems.

Batteries are just one of them, but many others are market integration, cross-border network connectivity, energy system digitization, long distance HVDC cables, etc. Gas is increasingly acting as a niche technology rather than a dominant technology. Niches can be essential and numerous, but they will remain niches.

You could say: The claim that gas is a transitional fuel is just an industry public relations slogan, just one sentence, part of a complex debate, and nothing more than a language issue.

Well, language matters. The very controversial European taxonomy for sustainable activities is the main language. It is about labeling things as sustainable or unsustainable rather than a set of strict prohibitive rules and penalties. Nonetheless, there is a bitter war over this “piece of language”, and the battle to obtain gas as green fuel is fierce.

Tagging gas as a bridging fuel, or the more delicate bureaucratic term “bridging activity”, is the main argument for including gas as a green fuel in the taxonomy. This brand image will have an impact on many investment decisions, public policies and spending.

“Gas is a transitional fuel” is the main justification for allowing countries to build gas-fired power plants according to the DNSH (Do No Significantly Harm) principle. When assessing the eligibility of gas-fired power plants as a replacement for coal-fired capacity, the European Commission requires that the newly constructed gas-generating capacity “result in the simultaneous closure of a power plant and / or gas station. a carbon-intensive heat plant (eg lignite or petroleum) with at least the same capacity ”.

In other words, if a country shuts down 1 GW of coal, it won’t do significant harm if it accumulates 1 GW of gas production.

Considering the current trend that gas does not replace coal, this rule simply means that the EC is actively pushing countries to build unnecessary gas capacity and, on top of that, is providing financial support to do so. .

Applied to gas, the DNSH principle will inflict damage mainly on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe which do not have ready-to-use gas production capacities and will have to invest in newly built power plants in order “not to cause such significant damage. “. This very expensive irony will only widen the technological divide between West and East, and in a few years we will see how the Green Deal is much greener for the West, but not so green, and not so profitable. and beneficial for the East.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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