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.

Making the transition II

Transition means being in an in-between state, crossing over to something which is supposed to be perhaps a less temporary state. The challenge, however, is that one can get stuck in transit. Natural gas as a fuel risk being in that state because it wasn’t really adopted fast enough as a transition fuel. And now renewable electricity from solar and wind has more or less leapfrog it in terms of cost advantage. Once battery or other energy storage technology moves along the cost curve and decline sufficiently, natural gas might even be bypassed.

So the world is in a somewhat confused state. When is it right to use gas? What should be counted as alternatives for decarbonisation? In any case, gas prices are spiking now so what does it mean? Should that mean we move forward into more renewables which might even be more expensive? Or we move backward into coal?

These decisions are not meant to be made in categorically; because the entire system needs to be considered. And what is at the margin in terms of choice needs to be clearly identified. If the additional unit of power that satisfies both energy security and the quantity demanded can be obtained through renewables, it should be used. Of course if that is not available, one might have to step back into more carbon-intensive processes. Availability can also be based on budget.

Natural gas itself, needs to be displaced by greener fuels without threatening the underlying combustion technologies that underpin the gas turbines. But that is perhaps for another day.