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Europe's climate woes — can this tech help?

Sergio Matalucci
September 12, 2019

Europe lags behind on several key renewable energy technologies, but there is a prominent exception. The continent's dominant position in power-to-gas technology cannot be overlooked.

A power-to-gas plant in Germany
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Arnold

The EU is striving hard to change its energy systems by resorting to climate-friendly technologies. Nonetheless, the bloc lags behind when it comes to research on several key energy technologies.

Of the 13 experts that DW spoke to to find out how the EU fares on greener energy technologies, six said the bloc trails others on batteries, while three said it's e-mobility where the EU needs to up its game.

There is a prominent exception, though — power-to-gas (PtG) technology. According to a recent academic paper by Technical University of Applied Sciences in the German city of Regensburg, the EU is a world leader in this technology, home to nearly 80% of the 153 projects globally.

"PtG is an option for converting energy from electricity into chemical bond energy, stored in a combustible gas," three of the scientists said. In other words, it is a way to convert electricity into gas.

If (cheap) electricity from renewables is used under suitable conditions, then this technology could help European countries achieve their climate targets, and reduce their dependence on imported gas, while still using the existing energy infrastructure.

It does not come as a surprise that, between 2008 and 2018, the EU has allocated over €150 million ($165 million) to PtG projects.

Power to Gas

Germany - a world leader

Germany leads the way when it comes to installed capacity (electrical power of electrolyzers) of PtG with nearly 40 megawatt (MW), according to an academic paper published on the topic this month. It is followed by Denmark, which has an installed capacity of 20 MW.

Despite the growth, several experts argue that PtG technology is still in the development stage and its role in the future energy system remains unclear. The current installed capacity is minimal. Germany's net electricity generation in 2017 was at 601.4 terawatt-hours (TWh), of which PtG accounted for less than 0.0001%.

The growing interest in PtG in Northern Europe has to do with climate targets, as well as technical complexities related to power distribution.

The proliferation of renewable energy is posing its own challenge to power companies. In Germany, for instance, renewable energy is mostly generated by wind farms in the north of the country, but it is mostly consumed in the south. Moreover, the production of electricity from renewables can be higher than demand depending on the season.

This surplus electricity could be stored using PtG technology, avoiding uneconomic alternatives like decreasing the capacity of installed renewable plants or paying to sell electricity.

"PtG technology seems very suitable for Europe. I think we already have a fairly strong gas sector. If you can re-use the gas infrastructure, it could be beneficial," Remko Detz, a scientist at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, told DW.

European gas production fell by 8.1% in 2018 compared with 2017, pushing the EU's natural gas dependency to an all-time high of about 80%. The trend is set to continue with the bloc decreasing its production further. Dutch authorities are speeding up the phase-out of the Groningen gas field, the largest natural gas field in Europe.

Innovative switchgear for green grids

Not an easy ride

PtG is widely regarded as the best technology to convert electricity into hydrogen, 95% of which currently comes from wood or fossil fuels.

The hydrogen can be used by the industry or pumped into the gas infrastructure. But there are significant restrictions on how much of the gas can be pumped because methane must remain the dominant gas in the grid.

PtG plants can also produce synthetic methane using hydrogen. To do so, though, they would require CO2 and sourcing CO2 is not logistically easy.

Moreover, PtG remains expensive, and converting electricity into gas involves energy loss. Re-converting gas into electricity would mean an even lower efficiency.

"Competitiveness can be reached within one to two decades. But you need a lot of developments that should be done quickly. Incentives are needed. And industry should be interested," Detz said.

This requires a concerted effort, both at a European and national level.

"While recent reforms have helped clarify a number of important questions regarding those aspects of power-to-gas that are related to electricity and renewable energy, there is still a need to reform gas legislation at the EU level. The unclarity over new and future gas rules makes it difficult for investors to calculate their risks and create business cases," Ruven Fleming, assistant professor at the Groningen Centre of Energy Law, told DW.

PtG and the environment

According to scientists, there are two main factors that determine the environmental credentials of PtG: the source of electricity, and the source of CO2, which is needed in some PtG projects. Caution is therefore needed. 

The electricity could theoretically come from coal. Similarly, if the CO2 is produced from a fossil source, PtG would not make much sense as far as controlling carbon emissions is concerned. The choice of the location is therefore key.

Environmental groups BUND and WWF Deutschland published a note on September 6, saying the PtG technology is not a "climate-friendly panacea." They argue that the environmental impacts of PtG have not been fully studied and say the technology should only be used where alternatives are either impossible or difficult to implement.

Despite PtG's potential to help decarbonize the economy, green groups remain skeptical.

"From our perspective, power-to-gas is highly questionable as it risks artificially and significantly prolonging the life of gas infrastructure and dependence on fossil fuels — where gas belongs — which isn't necessary for the energy transition," Tara Connolly, Greenpeace EU climate and energy policy director, told DW.

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