Why does Europe’s pathway to clean energy go through natural gas?

Natural gas, i.e. methane, is the cleanest of fossil fuels; its CO2 emissions are about half of that of coal and just one-third of brown coal emissions. Replacing coal with gas reduces total emissions by hundreds of millions of tonnes annually in Europe. In the long term, natural gas also must be replaced with clean gas to reduce emissions to zero. But what is clean gas? What role does clean gas play in the future energy system?

In everyday life of people and companies in Central Europe, gas is seen and felt at a different level than in Finland. The amount of electricity produced must always match the amount being consumed. In the Nordic countries, hydropower is abundant and helps in maintaining the balance. But in continental Europe, gas-fired power plants are used to offset the fluctuations in wind and solar energy production.

Gas-fired power plants are flexible and can quickly produce the needed amount of electricity, e.g., in freezing weather or when the wind isn’t blowing, or the sun isn’t shining. Gas power makes a sufficient amount of balancing electricity available, so more fluctuating renewable energy, like wind and solar power, can be built.

Additionally, natural gas is used to heat about half of European households, and a big share of industry is powered by gas. More gas than electricity is consumed in Europe – overall, Europe’s gas consumption is as much as 10-fold the electricity consumption of the Nordic countries. So gas is an essential part of Europe’s energy system.

In the short and long term, replacing coal with natural gas is one of the most effective climate actions – since 2014, the use of natural gas in European electricity production has increased by about 40 per cent, while emissions have decreased by 25 per cent during the same period. In addition to reducing emissions, natural gas ensures that fluctuations in wind and solar energy availability don’t jeopardise the availability of electricity.

Cleaner gas

In the long term, carbon emissions must also be eliminated in flexible gas-based electricity production. One of the most promising alternatives is replacing natural gas with hydrogen.

Hydrogen production itself takes a lot of electricity, but since the hydrogen system will be more flexible because of hydrogen gas storages, it can consume electricity flexibly when there isn’t a shortage of it. This is how hydrogen production – just as natural gas does now – will facilitate the additional building of wind and solar energy.

In addition to flexible electricity production and consumption, hydrogen offers a good way to reduce emissions in applications where electrification is difficult, but the use of fossil fuels should be discontinued. Examples include heating, the chemical industry, heavy transportation, and steel manufacturing. In these sectors, hydrogen can replace oil, coal and natural gas.

Moreover, Europe is the world’s leading producer of biogas. Biogas, used in heating, electricity production and, increasingly, also as a transport fuel, offers a solution for cutting agricultural methane emissions and recycling organic waste. However, the production potential of biogas is limited compared to hydrogen, for example.

The conversion to clean gas is a big change, and it also means the gas distribution networks need to be reformed. However, the same pipelines can be used to transfer clean gas instead of natural gas. Studies have shown that it is feasible to use the existing gas network in Europe to achieve climate targets, and it will also save hundreds of billions of euros. In addition to the pipeline network, some of the natural gas storages can easily be converted for hydrogen use, which is a prerequisite for the emergence of a large-scale hydrogen economy.

Germany has been a European frontrunner as a catalyst to a hydrogen economy. The country is an important hub in terms of natural gas, renewable energy and industry, and it will need a lot of electricity and hydrogen to reduce its emissions.

Finland, along with other Nordic countries, can also play an important role in a hydrogen economy. The good wind conditions of North offer low-cost electricity for hydrogen production. The development of gas thus holds interesting prospects also for the Finnish economy.

FAQ Gas

What is natural gas?

Natural gas, gas consisting of primarily methane, is a gas that is created underground when biomass decomposes. Natural gas, i.e. methane, is the cleanest of fossil fuels; its CO2 emissions are about half of that of coal and just one-third of brown coal emissions.

The natural gas available in Finland can be used directly in electricity production and heating. Natural gas can also be further refined to liquefied natural gas (LNG) and compressed natural gas (CNG).

In Finland, natural gas is used, especially in combined heat and power production and in the process industry. Household use of gas is concentrated to Helsinki, where gas stoves are used in cooking. The use of natural gas also as a transport fuel is on the rise.

In Europe, natural gas is used much more and on a wider scale than in Finland. Natural gas is used to heat about half of European households, and a big share of industry is powered by gas. Europe’s gas consumption is as much as 10-fold the electricity consumption of the Nordic countries. The majority of natural gas is used for household heating.

What is biogas?

Biogas is a 100% renewable energy form because it can be produced from virtually any organic matter, such as biowaste, wastewater sludge, manure, and industrial surplus waste. The biggest potential is in field biomass produced from inedible parts of crop plants, among others.

In the Nordic countries, biogas is used the most in Sweden and Denmark. Biogas is used in heating and electricity production, but a growing application is also transportation because biogas has the lowest emissions of transport fuels.

Biogas, used in heating, electricity production and, increasingly, also as a transport fuel, offers a solution for cutting agricultural methane emissions and recycling organic waste. However, the production potential of biogas is limited compared to hydrogen, for example.

What is hydrogen and how it can solve energy challenges?

Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, but there is very little of it in the Earth’s atmosphere. It is the lightest of the elements, and it has the highest energy density. Hydrogen has been recognised as an energy source for more than two hundred years, but it has again emerged as a hot topic in energy and climate discussions. Why? Combusting clean hydrogen does not create any emissions – the only end product is steam, which can be used for electricity production.

In the future, our energy will be sourced increasingly from the sun and wind. However, there will be situations when solar or wind power does not produce enough electricity, and the energy system needs to be balanced with energy storage.

Short-term storage is possible with, for instance, hydropower, but especially in Northern Europe, seasonal storage of energy will be needed for months at a time in the future. One solution for this is Power2X, i.e. converting electricity to energy form ‘X’. Here’s an example of how the method works: when there is a surplus of solar or wind energy, electrolysis can be used to produce hydrogen, which can then be stored for later use. Producing large amounts of hydrogen may also require constructing purpose-built wind and solar farms.

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