Sunsetting infrastructure

At some point in my career I got involved with projects with utilities in Australia. First with electricity distribution networks, then with gas utilities as well. They are all energy networks or utilities because my role as an energy transition consultant is to help players in the economy to navigate the challenges and struggles around our transforming energy landscape. They are struggles that the players and our economy must go through in order to emerge more resilient and climate-relevant.

Electricity networks are seen as important for the energy transition – the drive to decarbonise the energy system – so much so that The Economist ran a cover in April this year that shows a man hugging a transmission tower and the cover text reads “Hug Pylons Not Trees“.

Gas networks and pipelines are on the other end of the spectrum. There’s a lot of concerns around what is going to happen and the expectations of a death spiral. Activists campaigning against the gas networks can sometimes claim that they should be written off completely while contradicting themselves that the assets should not be allowed to depreciate quickly given they still have some operating life or runway. There is a role for gas networks to actually consider the challenging question of getting renewable gas into their network and the struggle has to do perhaps with the question of which gas. Would it be hydrogen, or biomethane, or what? And on the other hand, will they need to transport carbon dioxide? Perhaps captured ones from the industry? What role can the pipelines or network play?

If we keep thinking about molecules and figuring out which molecules, we’ll be somewhat stuck. The trick it seems, is to consider potentially taking the lead. It is still fascinating that Jemena actually took the lead to initiate the Malabar biomethane injection project and saw through it to the recent operation with the first biomethane injection into a distribution network in Australia. Biomethane in most cases is the straight-forward solution – one that is tricky to pull off but can be handled just from supply-side as the end-use equipment will not have to switch from the ones that already use natural gas. Therefore, it is the logical choice for gas networks to start taking the lead on. Perhaps in the next two to three years, it would soon be a no-brainer. But for now, we do what we can to further accelerate the transition.