Strong security of supply strengthens and supports the role of natural gas in the emission reduction of the Hungarian economy. According to the objectives of the National Clean Development Strategy and the National Energy Strategy, a 40% emission reduction is to be achieved – compared to the 1990 basis –, which must be increased to 65% until 2040, for the Hungarian economy to become net carbon neutral until 2050 as well. These measures enable Hungary to contribute to the European Green Deal action plan announced by the European Committee on 11th December 2019, which has set the climate neutrality of the European Union as a goal for 2050.
The role of natural gas in the short run
Without doubt, beside all these energy policy objectives, energy developments of the next 30 years have to point tot he direction of decarbonisation. FGSZ is committed to serve domestic and regional natural gas demand by maintaining and constantly developing its infrastructure as long as natural gas is a significant component of countries’ energy consumption. Surely, natural gas has a number of advantages compared to other fossil energy carriers, which may speed up decarbonisation endeavours in the short run, and may assure an overall healthier environment for everyone.
According to the global forecast of the International Energy Agency, the ratio of natural gas in electricity generation will increase globally until the last third of 2020; it will be the most-used fossil energy carrier in electricity production, overtaking carbon-based production. The most important source of the growth will not necessarily be to serve higher electricity demand, but the coal-to-gas-switch, thus the gradual reduction of emission in the electricity sector. Besides, natural gas-fuelled power plants can be operated in the most flexible way, so they excellently adapt to the headway of higher renewable energy capacities (highly dependent on weather conditions), while they are responsible for the security of the whole electricity system due to their balancing service. Moreover, the high level of efficiency and low carbondioxide emission (55% lower than that of carbon-based electricity production) of natural gas-fuelled power plants in itself contributes to the emission reduction of the production sector, while it also creates an opportunity for combined heat- and electricity production, which even further reduces emission projected to electricity generation per unit. In Hungary, in case of leaving coal-firing behind, natural gas-fuelled blocks are expected to take over coal blocks, which may increase the built-in capacity of domestic natural gas-fired power plants even further.
Sources of global electricity generation according to the Sustainable Development scenario of IEA (coal, natural gas, and non-fossil energy)
Beside power plant use, due to its favourable chemical characteristics, the use of natural gas in transportation and household heating has many advantages, especially in case it replaces carbon or biomass burning. Since natural gas has a gasuous state, it can mix with the oxygen of the air better, so no soot, dust, or smoke is generated compared to liquid and solid energy carriers. In contrast to coal, the emission of nitric oxide, carbon monodxide, and sulfur monoxide causing air pollution is minimal. Hence, with its more extensive use, fly ash pollution caused by winter heating or the nitric oxide emission of diesel vehicles in cities could be decreased. In Hungary, many cities use CNG-fuelled buses in public transportation, for instance these buses are used in Budapest, Miskolc, Kaposvár, and Nyíregyháza to improve air quality. At the same time, its use as a fuel is more reasonable in larger fleets from an economic point of view.
A further advantage of natural gas is that – in contrast to electricity networks – pipelines run underground, hidden from our sight, so they disturb the landscape, the environment, and the residents a lot less; it is not incidental either that authorisation of high-voltage electric wire projects often drag on for decades. Moreover, transmission of energy is significantly cheaper in its molecular (gas) form, on the one hand, due to the cheaper costs of the infrastructure, on the other hand, due to the lower energy loss during transmission. Due to the safe and economic technology of underground gas storages, long-term energy storage is solved, unlike in case of electricity. All these factors foreshadow an important role for gas systems in the energy vertical of the future.
The role of natural gas and gas systems in the long run
The European Committee launched its European Green Deal action plan on 11th December 2019, in which the European Union set out climate neutrality as a goal for 2050. During the next two-three years, legislation fixing the goals and specific measures of the Green Deal will be elaborated concerning the gas industry, regarding the role of natural gas in the energy mix, as well as the new future role of the pipeline infrastructure (in an emission neutral world) used primarily for natural gas transmission today. In a 2050 perspective, in a low or net zero emission economy, the simple burning of natural gas is not a sustainable technology. At the same time, with a systemic transformation following a well-thought-out strategy, both natural gas and the system built for the purposes of natural gas could play a useful, even necessary role in a new, sustainable energy system.
This sustainable gas system will transport biogas and its cleansed version, biomethan in a larger quantity in the future compared to today’s amount, while in the long run the transportation of hydrogen may receive a more significant role. In the short run, biogas and biomethane may be the best alternatives for natural gas. The composition of the latter is nearly the same as that of natural gas. Transmission systems and usage need no intervention on the existing systems. Their disadvantage is that production is relatively difficut to scale to fully cover country needs, even if natural gas consumption will decrease in the future.
Hence, the next stage of development of the gas system built on methane is the utilisation of hydrogen, first probably as a hydrogen-natural gas mix, later as transmission of clean hydrogen. The European Committee published its strategy aiming at encouraging the production and use of hydrogen in July 2020. Examined by its full life cycle, low emission hydrogen can be produced with electricity generated from renewable or nuclear energy, through hydrolysis. However, hydrogen can be produced through decomposing natural gas (methane) with water steam, where carbon dioxide is generated beside hydrogen. By the smart combination of technologies, carbon dioxide produced during hydrogen generation can be compressed in place of natural gas, and greenhouse gas emission can be avoided in the long run.
Until the extensive use of hydrogen is realised, a number of technological challenges need to be solved both on the side of transmission and on the side of consumers. For existing systems can only utilise hydrogen with significant transformations – which need investment. To reduce this, until a market need for a large amount of pure hydrogen arises, in theory it is possible to mix 10-15% hydrogen to natural gas, thus reducing its carbon footprint. FGSZ is presently examining the necessary technological developments needed for the Hungarian natural gas system to be able to mix and transport hydrogen.
However, transmission of pure hydrogen presently needs a somewhat different infrastructure. Different gaskets and valves are needed, since the hydrogen molecule is the smallest of all, so it can – to varying degrees, of course – diffuse through almost all material, thus „escape” from the gas system. Compared to natural gas, its energy content is one-third in the same volume. So the amount of energy transported by them may decrease within the capacity limits of present networks, if these systems are used for the transmission of pure hydrogen. At the same time, there is no need to install completely new devices either: according to the plans, unused natural gas infrastructure – with additions and developments – will give the backbone of the European hydrogen system. According to the plans of the EU, the switch to hydrogen will take 20-30 years; this time will be enough to carry out system-level develpments and replace end-user devices.
According to our present knowledge and expectations, storage of renewable electricity in an industrial amount can be realised in the form of hydrogen – through electrolysis technology – in the gas networks and gas storages prepaerd for this use. Hence, transmission and storage system operators similar to FGSZ will receive important roles in the energy transition, by facailitating the transition to an emission-free energy production through solving the problems of energy storage as well as energy transmission. A strategic goal of FGSZ is – in case a real social and market need arises to connect climate friendly hydrogen and other alternative gas sources into the gas system – to create and realise related transmission and storage capacities and tasks in the most efficient way.