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Greening colourless source agnostic gases

Antwerp, Belgium was the place to be during the fourth week of January for anyone with a professional interest in what may lie ahead for the European renewable gas (R-Gas) sector – topical topics on policy, technology, R&D and emerging market applications were crammed into the agenda of the European Biogas Association’s (EBA) annual two-day conference which also included an optional post-conference study tour.

For a bioenergy omnivore such as this publication, it was a programme packed with high-yield substrates for editorial digestion, not least given the timing of the event a week or so after the European Parliament’s vote on its position going into the trilogue on the Renewable Energy Directive post-2020. A shame that the turnout wasn’t more than the 200 plus pax – not that it was a poor number but the content ought to have sparked a keener interest.

For anyone tempted to dismiss European biogas as a marginal renewable dominated by Germany as the powerhouse based on corn silage supported by generous feed-in tariffs (FIT) for electricity, it’s well past due for a reassessment. Admittedly, Germany dominates in Europe with 61 percent of all biogas plant installations and 46 percent of installed electrical capacity (IEC) but figures from EBA’s eminent EBA Statistical report 2017 also reveals that other countries are making impressive strides and that a transition towards biomethane plants is in the making.

A not often discussed point that Ingo Biertümpel from Grillo-Werke brought up highlights the unique dilemma that is biogas/biomethane – methane (CH4) of a biogenic origin. Like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane is a greenhouse gas (GHG) in terms of its global warming potential and climate impact and the atmosphere is source agnostic for both of these colourless and odourless gases. Like solid biomass and liquid biofuels, biogas has to contend with the more often than not, the subsidised price of its fossil methane counterpart, natural gas, irrespective of the latter’s end use.

Ingo Biertümpel, Grillo-Werke AG discussing the potential as a chemical building block.

However, unlike coal and oil, fossil methane is the most abundant, “cleanest” and cheapest fossil fuel and, apart from being extracted as gas from gas and shale gas fields, it also comes as co-product of oil and shale oil extraction as well as from oil refining. So much so that an estimated 147 billion m3 of fossil methane gas was flared in 2015 according to data from the Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR), a World Bank-led multi-stakeholder organization.

Flaring at thousands of gas flares at oil production sites around the globe causes an estimated 350 million tonnes of CO2 to be emitted to the atmosphere. This is on top of methane emissions itself of which recent NASA-led research has confirmed that the fossil fuel sector is behind the recent increase in methane emissions.

Needless to say, this has both significant climate impact and price implications. Part of the reason is the nature of the resource itself, a gas being far removed from demand with the cost of its capture and lack of distribution infrastructure outweighing any revenue.

For the biogas sector, especially for biogas power plants without a heat sink, the gas grid, the extent of which varies considerably from country to country in Europe represents an opportunity to realign the business case as the allure of feed-in tariffs fades. However, this is a bone of contention not least within the wider bioenergy community.

A “best practices” parallel session at EBA 2018 with Carbotech’s Alfons Schulte-Schulze sharing challenges, experiences and opportunities in converting biowaste to bio-CNG.

Some argue that extending the existing gas grid infrastructure with new pipelines only opens for more fossil gas consumption, presumably at the expense of other renewable alternatives as well as coal and oil, which will increase import dependency and delay a renewable energy transition.

Others claim that natural gas is, in fact, a “renewable ally” providing additional infrastructure, presumably financed by the oil and gas majors, and acts as a “soft enabler” of the energy transition. In doing so it opens a bridge for a greening of the gas grid with decentralised biomethane and hydrogen production while providing power grid stability, reducing fossil carbon emissions and improving air quality by displacing coal and oil.

Both camps hold true, though, as ever in the bioenergy world, it is context dependent. In Denmark for instance, an assessment published by Grøn Gas Danmark suggests that the country has the potential to make a 100 percent green transition of the gas grid by 2035 with a combination of energy efficiency, production efficiency and domestic feedstock – quite remarkable given that first biomethane-to-grid was injected as late as 2014.

Guillaume Virmaux, GRDF outlining how France could achieve a 100 percent renewable gas by 2050.

At the conference, Guillaume Virmaux from GRDF, a subsidiary of France-based energy major Engie, echoed this sentiment for France, where “a share of 30 percent of renewable gas in the gas grid is reachable by 2030”.

Furthermore, Virmaux also suggested that it 100 percent renewable gas by 2050 was technically and economically feasible referring to an exploratory study jointly conducted by GRDF, GRTBiogaz and the French energy agency ADEME. The study was officially released a week or so after the conference.

Green gas from Denmark is finding its way into neighbouring Germany and a session dedicated to inter-EU biomethane trading clearly highlighted the challenges of bi-lateral agreements and other developments of the recently formed European Renewable Gas Registry (ERGaR) has to contend with.

Thus it is anyone’s guess as to how far the fossil gas bridge is likely to extend into the future but what is clear is that even with the existing grid infrastructure in Europe, fossil gas from Russia is more than likely to continue dominating the EU methane mix for the foreseeable future, offset with supplies of LNG from North America and the Middle East, when the price is right no doubt.

The transport sector is one area that highlights the duality of the gas bridge.

Like GRDF, Finland-headed gas major Gasum is another example of this gas bridging duality and Matti Oksanen spoke of greening the Nordic gas “ecosystem” – the company is busy rolling out new biomethane production and gas refuelling stations across Finland, Norway and Sweden.

As it stands, the fossil gas bridge is more likely to be extended now that urban air quality and “dirty diesel” in the transportation sector is in focus, in particular, medium and heavy-duty fleets such as trucks, buses and shipping vessels. A sentiment that Andrea Gerini from NGVA Europe (Natural Gas Vehicle Association) emphasised by saying that “renewable gas can provide a significant contribution to decarbonisation, as today’s CNG and LNG vehicle technologies are ready to run on 100 percent renewable energy”.

Gerini is right, in the same sense as the diesel engine and vehicle manufacturers are right in the aftermath of “diesel-gate” – it’s not the internal combustion engine itself that is the problem, it’s the fuel. Representatives from Iveco and Scania both showcased examples with Jonas Strömberg from the latter emphasising the need for all renewable powertrain options as liquid, gas and electric and hybrids thereof – the same day Scania announced a partnership with Swedish battery startup Northvolt.

However, Strömberg also highlighted the circular economic opportunities for biogas and public transport in the urbanised world echoing a message from the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change. Illustrating with cases from cities in Colombia and Sweden, Strömberg’s general rule of thumb was that biogas from wastewater treatment of a one million inhabitant city can run a fleet of 1 000 buses entirely on biogas which is also roughly the fleet size needed.

Klazien Ebbens from OCI Nitrogen a Netherlands-headed fertilizer, ammonia and melamine manufacturer.

Another key takeaway from the conference that ties into the gas grid infrastructure and biomethane trading is the chemical industry – there is interest in securing green methane molecules despite the limited availability. Klazien Ebbens from OCI Nitrogen gave a fascinating insight into the scale while illustrating the dilemma and consequences of steering instruments.

The company is involved in a “big” (by biogas standards) project adjacent to its facility in the Netherlands. At full capacity, the biogas plant would be able to supply about 2.5 percent of the fertilizer facility’s energy requirements thus reducing its carbon footprint and its Emissions Trading System (ETS) bill accordingly while providing a marginal heat sink.

In reality, Ebbens suggested that the current carbon price is not high enough to strictly justify the investment but the price is anticipated to increase. In addition, no green methane molecules from the biogas plant will be in the manufacturing process of the product itself – at least not yet as this would incur additional investment in upgrading which gets back to available and tradable biomethane from the grid at a competitive price.

Power grid stability – excess (renewable) power-to-gas (PtG) such as hydrogen (H2) via electrolysis of water or power-to-methane (PtM) – was another issue discussed during the EBA conference and is also a potential bone of contention. The latter, PtM, was described by Dr Doris Schmack from MicrobEnergy GmbH, part of the Germany-headed Viessman Group as the ability to “convert excess of power from renewable energies into synthetic methane” using, in this case, biological methanation.

Farzad Mohseni from infrastructure consultants Sweco giving an interview during EBA 2018.

However, without a distinction between fossil CO2 and biogenic CO2, PtM or for that matter power-to-liquids (PtL) and power-to-X (PtX), risks perpetuating fossil source CO2 into gaseous or liquid fuels or products as forms of carbon capture and utilisation (CCU).

This was something that Farzad Mohseni from infrastructure consultants Sweco illustrated in his presentation on strategies for a feasible PtG production on the island of Gotland, Sweden. The importance of the distinction is of mutual interest within the wider bioenergy sector and there is a sense of urgency as CCU and upstream emission reduction (UER) projects in the cement, iron and steel and the oil and gas sectors begin to mobilise in a bid to lower carbon intensities.

In summary, “the growing interest for our conference and the lively discussions held this year demonstrate the richness of our sector, which will continue to grow, potentially boosted by the adoption of several key legislative files by the EU institutions in 2018. The emergence of state-of-the-art technologies will also bring even more environmental-friendly solutions in the years to come”, remarked Dr Stambasky in his closing remarks.

A notably pleased EBA President wrapping up the 2018 EBA “Greening Gas” conference in Antwerp.

As an industry observer that attended both days, one can only concur with Dr Stambasky’s remarks. Furthermore, if the rich content of this year’s conference is anything to go by, then next year’s edition – slated to be held in Brussels, Belgium at the end of January 2019 – is unequivocally a must-attend.

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