Switching from coal to fossil gas is not an option

By: Fredrik Lundberg

Projects of common interest, PCI, are “key cross-border infrastructure projects that link the energy systems of EU countries”. 

The latest list of such projects contains 149 projects: 100 in electricity transmission and storage, 6 in smart grid deployment, 32 gas, 6 oil and 5 cross-border carbon dioxide networks.

But it does not look like plain sailing through the Parliament. 

“We cannot afford to be wasting any public money on fossil gas infrastructure that is destined to become stranded assets,” said MEP Martin Hojsík, a member of the liberal Renew group, according to ENDS, on 20 January.

This wastage was specified as 29 billion euro by Luxembourg’s energy minister, Claude Turmes.

The Commission is now considering three options, one of which is to stop gas investments, one to carry on as if nothing has happened, and a third more vague compromise.

One of the hard-liners in the Commission is trade commissioner Phil Hogan, who went to a think tank in Washington in January and said about the EU increasing imports of fracking LNG from the US:

“This increase in imports is good for US farmers and exporters – but also for energy diversification and agriculture in the EU. It is a great example of a win-win.”

For at least 40 years natural gas has been touted as a “bridge” to a green clean future. The gas industry still says so. Norway is a leading supplier of gas to the EU and its lobby puts it this way:

“Reducing gas deliveries from Norway would not be beneficial for the climate. Natural gas is the solution for combating growth in coal consumption and achieving emission reductions. It is also the perfect partner for renewables, since these sources will jointly reduce coal emissions and provide stable energy supplies.”1

One of the reasons why fossil gas has been a harder sell, politically, during the 2010s is that it is mostly imported, from Russia, Algeria, the US and Norway. The EU’s own gas resources are small and dwindling.

Another reason for doubting the coal-to-gas prescription is that since 2007, before the 2008 recession, coal power has halved, while gas power also decreased. It was not gas that replaced coal, oil and nuclear power. It was wind, solar, and efficiency that did so2

 Even more recent data from Ember3  for April 2020 shows that the share of intermittent renewables has been pushed far higher than ever before. 23 percent of all generation came from solar and wind. Gas power fell 30 per cent compared to April 2019. Coal fell 42–43 percent, and nuclear 16 percent.

Dave Jones from Ember described this as a “postcard from the future”. 

The extraordinary spring of 2020 with all the lockdowns is not a picture of how anyone wants the European energy system to look. But it shows that it is easier to integrate a lot of wind and solar even without any preparation. Integration will be even easier with more electric vehicles, more battery storage and more power lines, all of which are surely coming. The current 23 percent from solar and wind is no way near the ceiling; this month, Denmark got 65 per cent of its electricity from solar and wind, but Poland only 12 percent and France 9 percent. 

The 23 percent figure for wind and solar does not include existing hydro, which is a great resource in itself and for balancing solar and wind, and neither does it include biomass, some of which is sustainable and some of which can also balance solar and wind.

Nuclear power is now shrinking fast in Europe. Not only will it totally vanish in Germany by 2022. Two reactors closed in France and one in Sweden during 2020. In the next few years some reactors will also be phased out in Belgium and in the UK – which is already connected to the European grid. Nuclear power is not flexible, with a minor exception in France, so less nuclear means more room for wind and solar.

As solar and wind are now the cheapest form of power, they can also carry the cost of some extravagant flexibility. If there is too much wind or solar, it can be curtailed. On occasions it can also be operated “with headroom”, that is at less than full capacity, so that output can be turned up when needed. 

Such redundancy is acceptable if it just means a few percent lost. If it is more than that, it makes sense to use the power to produce hydrogen. Or to store excess electricity as heat. Or to build solar thermal power, as in Spain, which can supply power for hours without any sun. Or to program the charging of vehicles according to the demand on the power system. 

The cheapest way to balance solar and wind over a few hours is demand-side management. It is a complex task to do this in a way that creates incentives for all parties, but the stakes are getting higher. Very low or even negative electricity prices are common with a high percentage of wind and solar, and this has been accentuated by the Corona crisis.

There are several technical and political ways to shoehorn in a lot more renewables, without gas to balance them, but such methods will not be exploited fully until they are needed. 

To be fair, gas power did increase in 2019, after a reform of the EU emissions trading system increased prices for CO2 emissions. That is how the market works. When a coal power plant is turned off, something else will have to make up for the difference straight away. This something else is not wind or solar, because you cannot build a new plant in a second, and there is no unused capacity. 

Over a longer period of several years, renewables and efficiency gains have replaced a lot of all fossil fuels. Compared to 2007, gas, coal, oil and nuclear have all lost out.

AirClim published a report about fossil gas in 2016 – Phasing out fossil gas in Europe4. Up till then some important NGOs saw a long-term role for natural gas, as a way to phase out coal and nuclear faster. Among them was BUND – Friends of the Earth Germany, and Greenpeace Germany. BUND soon changed tack completely5, and Greenpeace also sees a way out from gas6. New anti-gas organisations have appeared, such as https://www.gastivists.org/4-videos-fossil-gas-the-real-story/ (with nice animations to make their points.)

Since 2016, the case for gas looks even more tenuous. 

There is precious little time left if the Paris agreement and recent IPCC reports are to be taken seriously. Investment in any fossil capacity assumes that it will be used for decades. With a 40 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990, there might be some room for gas. With a 65 percent cut, as recently proposed by lead lawmaker Jytte Guteland (S&D, Sweden) in the European Parliament, switching from coal to gas is not an option.

Some 17 per cent of global warming – measured as radiative forcing – comes from methane, the main constituent of natural gas. But that may be an underestimate. Recent research7 suggests that mankind has added 25–40 percent more methane since preindustrial times than previously thought.

This methane comes from natural gas leaks, from coal mines and oil wells, but not from rice paddies or ruminating cows. The latter can be identified separately, since methane that circulates in the biosphere contains carbon 14, but fossil methane does not.

Liquid Natural Gas, LNG from fracking, though praised by commissioner Hogan, is especially controversial, not just because of the fracking. Its liquefaction, transport and gasification incur great energy losses.


Fredrik Lundberg

1. https://www.norskoljeoggass.no/en/climate/climate/

2. Own calculations from https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/quarterly_report_on_europea... and BP statistics from 2007-2018

3. https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-coronavirus-has-cut-co2-from-europe...

4. Air Pollution and Climate Series 34 www.airclim.org/sites/default/files/documents/APC-34-v2.pdf

5. https://www.bund.net/service/presse/pressemitteilungen/detail/news/erdga...

6. https://www.greenpeace-energy.de/presse/artikel/windgas-in-wenigen-jahre...

7. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-1991-8

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