UK and European energy systems are expected to change significantly over the next 40 years, as existing energy sources decline and are replaced by low-carbon alternatives. Although the future energy landscape is widely forecast to be one of increased electrification, it is not known how different the energy mix will look compared to now, and what role natural gas will have in the future.
This question was posed by the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) as it launched its Gas Vector Transition Pathways development initiative earlier this year. The Institute has awarded DNV GL a major contract to undertake this project, due to the company’s experience in working with low-carbon energies, such as bio-synthetic natural gas (bio-SNG), hydrogen and all forms of natural gas.
DNV GL teams based at Loughborough, UK, and Groningen, The Netherlands, will be leading the project with partners The Scottish Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Association, University College London and the European Gas Research Group providing additional specialist expertise in hydrogen technologies, systems modelling and the European outlook.
An open brief
The project team has begun initial exploratory work into the potential production, utilisation and infrastructure requirements of several gas scenarios in the UK in 2050. These include bio-SNG, high hydrogen gas and alternative natural gas.
“This is an exciting and wide-ranging brief that has captured the imagination of our own experts and external partners,” said Colin Heap, commercial manager for DNV GL’s Oil & Gas technical advisory team in the UK.
“It is exciting because we don’t know what we are going to find and because, rather than being asked to solve a specific technical challenge, we are being asked to use our experience and expertise at a higher, more theoretical level.”
Focused work groups have already begun to identify the technical challenges, possible solutions, costs and timelines of several gas vector transitions.
“The flexibility of gas in its various forms, allows for the development of a wide range of production and delivery pathways, all of which could contribute to the low carbon energy system of the future,” said Heap.
“Our findings are due to be delivered to the ETI in August 2015. The output will allow us to create a clearer picture of how the downstream gas market could look in 2050, and what forms of innovation will be necessary to facilitate that potential future.”
A focus on gas
The UK’s gas network currently carries over four times as much energy as its electricity networks. It has the potential to carry a wide range of gas forms, including hydrogen and bio-SNG, supporting suggestions that gas could and should play a crucial role in the development of low-carbon energy future. But, this potential is not just limited to the UK, according to Len Eastell, senior consultant and project manager at DNV GL.
“From a Europe-wide and worldwide perspective, there are even greater opportunities to adopt new forms of gas energy. Some emerging economies may even be to able to sidestep some of the challenges that the UK will face in modifying existing pipelines and facilities, by designing their infrastructures with this ‘future’ in mind,.” he added.
The proposed ETI scenarios cover gas supply transitions that could play a significant role in the energy mix in the coming decades. Bio-SNG, for example, is a synthetic natural gas that is produced by the gasification of biomass. It differs from biogas in that it is produced by the gasification of cellulosic materials (such as forestry residues and energy crops), rather than by a biological process. This means that it could be harnessed by production plants to convert waste into energy.
Hydrogen gas can be produced from renewable sources, such as biomass, as well as ‘surplus’ wind and solar energy. It can already be fed into existing natural gas pipeline networks. However, the physical and chemical properties of hydrogen differ from those of natural gas, and some changes to gas network components and end-user appliances might be necessary in order to accept hydrogen/natural gas mixtures.
Charting a future
The current energy landscape has become increasingly complex, with important new sources, such as shale gas, LNG and renewables impacting discussions about the future of supply. But, with so many options and potential combinations to consider, Eastell believes it is crucial for the sector to begin those discussions now.
“This project is intended to provide a better understanding of the implications and the challenges that may arise as a result of these major infrastructure transitions,” he explained.
“It will also help to determine how affordable the transitions could be. Building on this, and identifying potential solutions to engineering challenges and implementation costs, will provide further evidence to inform investment in different energy system transitions.”