The role of Natural Gas in a Net Zero World

Stefano Galiasso
Senior Associate

by Stefano Galiasso and Mark Yingling

A Changing Narrative

Natural Gas is seeing increasing levels of support as a key element of a decarbonized future. This might sound counterintuitive as natural gas contains carbon – so what is the role of natural gas in a net zero world? In the short term, natural gas can replace higher polluting resources and do so at a scale, speed, affordability, and reliability levels that only the existing energy system can provide. In the long term, natural gas can be converted to green molecules with low / no carbon intensity (e.g. RNG and hydrogen) and perform complementary duties to green electrons (e.g. solar and wind) to provide us the kind of 24/7/365 energy that we have come so used to and so dependent on (at least in the developed world).

At ECV, we are excited about both of those angles, and we are big advocates of green molecules to reach an affordable, reliable and just energy transition. With utilities on our side, our platform is designed to provide entrepreneurs with industry connections that can accelerate their commercialization trajectory and help them scale and operate at a much bigger size than their “young age” would suggest. As a testimony to the change in the natural gas narrative, prominent business and political figures as well as NGOs have started to publicly speak up in favor of natural gas, primarily for three reasons: 

1. The Race to Net Zero will be accelerated by a combination of technologies. A couple of weeks ago the United States’ Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, stated

Natural gas is central to a smart and achievable policy to cut greenhouse-gas emissions today. In the near term, that means pairing with renewables to clean up electricity.

Immediately, natural gas is well positioned to phase out coal and nuclear power in several regions of the world. Longer term, natural gas will make its largest contribution to the clean energy transition through the production of ‘green’ or ‘blue’ gas alternatives and the adaptation of existing natural gas infrastructure to successfully deliver these fuels. The United Nations (see this article from UNECE) acknowledges that new natural gas developments in conjunction with renewables and carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), can accelerate the decarbonization of the energy sector without impacting energy security. 

2. It is an Essential Component of Energy Security Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, said in his 2022 Letter to CEO’s

The transition to net zero… will not happen overnight. . . . For example, to ensure continuity of affordable energy supplies during the transition, traditional fossil fuels like natural gas will play an important role both for power generation and heating in certain regions, as well as for the production of hydrogen.

3. To End Energy Dependence Bloomberg published intel on a pending European Union plan to begin weaning itself off of Russian fuels. The alleged plan has allocated nearly $205B to the accelerated deployment of renewables, improvement in energy savings, and diversification of fuel supplies. The plan is said to have detailed infrastructure investments that will enable sufficient imports of LNG and other low-carbon fuel sources, ensuring that the new infrastructure will be hydrogen-ready. The EU is targeting 10 million tons of domestic renewable hydrogen, 10 million tons of imported renewable hydrogen, and 35 billion tons of biomethane production by 2030. Several components of this plan rely on the existing natural gas infrastructure to achieve energy independence.

Let’s see in more detail how natural gas can enable a faster transition to a Net Zero world.

Short Term

Phasing out Coal According to Toby Rice (CEO of EQT Corp) replacing coal power overseas with American LNG “would have the environmental impact of electrifying every vehicle in the United States, putting solar on every household in America, and adding 54,000 industrial-scale windmills—like that would be double the U.S.’s wind capacity—combined.”  This transition could be done quickly by leveraging already existing technology. 

 

Reducing Methane Emissions Methane loss from natural gas systems arises from fugitive sources (think: valves, flanges, fittings, compressors, seals, etc.), venting, and flaring during routine and maintenance operations and upset events. Methane is about 25x more potent at trapping heat than CO2 and constitutes about 10% of total GHG anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions in the atmosphere. The natural gas industry has already invested aggressively in methane leak reduction, achieving a 35% reduction in upstream methane emissions in just 3 years (from 2017 to 2020). The industry has an opportunity to get ahead of pending regulations and improve efforts to reduce methane leaks. Reduction in methane emissions will be an essential part in maximizing the climate benefits of switching to gas in the near term. To learn more on the methane leak and threat detection landscape, read our article here.  

Medium to Long Term

Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) is a drop-in replacement fuel for fossil-derived Natural Gas. RNG is biomethane that is captured and conditioned for pipeline injection from landfill emissions, livestock operations, wastewater treatment, and other sources of biological waste.  The natural decay of biosolids leads to the production of biomethane which would otherwise be flared or emitted in the atmosphere.   

This technology is altering the way people think of natural gas as no longer a fossil fuel, but a renewable resource.  According to multiple studies, RNG could supply anywhere between 17% to more than 200% of US Residential gas consumption (depending on how many and which kind of feedstocks are taken into account for RNG production).

RNG is a fast-growing market: the Coalition for RNG tracks 249 Operational facilities in the US, with 105 new facilities under construction and 118 new facilities planned, which would double the supply of RNG in the United States. Europe has 729 such facilities already operating, which allowed renewable energy pioneer Denmark to achieve 25% of natural gas consumption from carbon-neutral or carbon-negative RNG sources in 2021 (up from 21% in 2020), with a path to reach 100% RNG consumption in its pipelines by 2034. While Denmark is currently an exception, it provides a glimpse to what can be achievable in a future net-zero natural gas world.

The Scale Up and Production of Hydrogen: Advances in Hydrogen production technologies present opportunities to reduce the emissions of natural gas systems as well.  Hydrogen is a molecule that burns without producing CO2 (the byproduct of hydrogen combustion is water vapor) and that can be blended with natural gas to reduce its associated CO2 emissions. Hydrogen can be produced in many ways, often described using different colors. In the short term, blue hydrogen (that is, hydrogen produced with Steam Methane Reformers retrofitted with Carbon Capture and Sequestration technologies) is likely going to be the dominating form of hydrogen production due to its relatively low cost and extensive technological maturity. 

In the long term, other forms of hydrogen such as green hydrogen (produced using water electrolysis by using electricity to break up Hydrogen and Oxygen in water), turquoise hydrogen (produced by “cracking” or splitting natural gas molecules into solid Carbon and Hydrogen with little or no CO2 emissions) and gold hydrogen (produced biologically in the subsurface by upgrading spent wells) will become more popular due to their more favorable GHG emission profiles. To learn more about the current state of the hydrogen market you can read our article here.

Energy Capital Ventures is creating a platform for gas technology advancement

At Energy Capital Ventures we are very proud to support these technological innovations and invest in green molecules to lead us to a Net Zero future, leveraging our platform to help entrepreneurs in bringing forward the energy sources of tomorrow.