How much are we hitting the gas?

New Gas 2030 dialogue process looks at the importance of natural gas, hydrogen and others in the energy mix of the future.

Happy woman travelling by scooter with spread legs© Adobe Stock/Maridav

Germany has decided to phase out nuclear power and coal. It wants its energy supply of the future to be climate-friendly, secure and affordable. But what role do various forms of gas play in the energy transition?

Gas is not an easy thing to grasp – not least when it comes to deciding whether to classify it as a conventional fuel source or a renewable. Firstly, there’s fossil gas. This releases carbon emissions when combusted, but far fewer than coal and oil. Secondly, there’s biogas which is released in the fermentation of biogas. This is mainly methane (for more information on biogas, please click here). Thirdly, there’s gas that is produced from renewable electricity. This might take the form of hydrogen or synthetic methane and be used to develop sector coupling. This is the case where the gas is used to propel ships or heavy goods vehicles, for example, as it means that via the gas, renewable electricity is being used in the transport sector. Intensive research is currently being conducted into the viability of using gas generated from electricity as a means of storing energy for the electricity grid of the future (described in more detail further below).

Experts looking more closely at gas as an energy source

The new Gas 2030 dialogue process launched by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy is now taking a closer look at the different types of gas that may be used as an energy source, providing a forum for discussion on the medium and long-term prospects of their use. Companies, associations, scientists and representatives of various policy areas met together for the first time in February, with the German Energy Agency dena leading the process on the ministry’s behalf. Experts are focusing on a series of key questions up to September. These include:

• How much gas will be needed in the medium and long term?
• How can this need be met and what infrastructure is needed?
• What role can renewable gases play in achieving climate objectives in the heat and transport sectors?
• How can hydrogen and synthetic methane be produced and stored cost-effectively on an industrial scale?
• What can we learn from other countries that also use renewable gases?

The report of findings from the Gas 2030 dialogue process is to be presented in the autumn. The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy will then use this report to identify where political action needs to be taken.

Gas boiler in the basement: natural gas mainly used for heating

It’s already clear that natural gas will continue to play a major role in our energy supply in Germany over the next few years. Today, gas covers just under a quarter of our primary energy consumption. Natural gas is mainly used in the heat market. With an annual consumption of around 95 billion cubic metres, Germany is one of the largest sales markets for natural gas in the European Union. Some 44% of the energy consumption for heating buildings is covered by gas.

Only 7% of the natural gas we need can be covered by domestic production. The rest is piped in from other countries, particularly from Russia, Norway and the Netherlands. The fact that Germany is so strongly dependent on imports means its instruments for ensuring security of gas supply are vital. These include gas storage, with Germany having the world's fourth-largest gas-storage capacity (for more information on supply security, please click here).

Cars, lorries and ships: natural gas as a climate-friendly fuel

Promoting the use of natural gas is one way to cut the harmful carbon emissions in the transport sector as vehicles powered by natural gas emit far fewer particulates and nitrous oxides than other engine combustors. At the end of 2018, just over 80,000 cars powered by natural gas were on Germany’s roads. According to the Federal Motor Transport Authority, this is equivalent to 0.2% of the total car fleet.

Natural gas and biomethane can also make heavy goods vehicles much more climate-friendly. LNG is the abbreviation for 'Liquefied Natural Gas' (for more information on LNG as a fuel for lorries and ships, please click here). Private investors are considering building LNG terminals at three ports in Germany – in Brunsbüttel, Stade and Wilhelmshaven. Liquefied natural gas would then be able to be imported via these terminals, for example from the USA.

Last month, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Mr Peter Altmaier hosted a German-American conference on the development of the LNG import market where he also presented a key points paper. The aim was to help enable LNG to break onto the German market quickly. This will also require a change to the Energy Industry Act whereby transmission system operators will be obligated to build the necessary pipelines between LNG terminals and the transmission network, and to connect these terminals to the network.

Gas-fired power stations provide flexibility for the electricity market

Natural gas is currently playing an important role in bridging the transition from fossil fuels to renewables in the power sector. Production at gas-fired power plants is flexible and can be regulated up or down, helping to absorb the fluctuating feed-in quantities of renewable energies. This is important for ensuring security of supply (for more information on flexibility options, please click here).

In the future, electricity from renewables is also to be used in a greater variety of ways in the heating and transport sectors. This includes using the electricity directly in heat pumps and electric vehicles. In addition, gases produced from electricity could also help to decarbonise these areas. Power-to-Gas technology converts electricity into hydrogen or methane, which is then used on site or is fed into the gas network. In this way, renewable electricity can be used as fuel, stored for later use and, if necessary, converted back into electricity. However, converting electricity into gas and back into electricity leads to high losses vis-à-vis the energy used in the original conversion.

Using hydrogen: Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy funding research projects

In order to develop power-to-gas further, the Federal Government has laid down specific research priorities in its current energy research programme. The aim is to test the extent to which the technology can be used cost-efficiently in the next few years. At a research facility in the Mainz-Hechtsheim industrial park, companies and scientists are testing the possibility of storing volatile wind energy in the form of hydrogen. As part of this work, they are investigating all of the different steps involved, from generating and storing the hydrogen, to using it on an industrial scale, using state-of-the-art technology throughout the whole process. The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy has provided financial support for these activities.

Through its newly launched 'Regulatory test beds for the energy transition' competition, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy is looking to find further projects dealing with the industrial-scale production of hydrogen and other synthetic fuels from electricity and that also consider how these can be used to store energy for the power grid. Such projects can receive funding of up to €100 million per year.