Grand plans for gas infrastructure
Gas Infrastructure Europe is coordinating plans to overhaul the continent’s distribution system in preparation for decarbonisation
Gas Infrastructure Europe (GIE) is in a unique position to reimagine how existing gas infrastructure assets can be utilised and augmented to facilitate the delivery of many national governments’ pledges to become net-zero carbon emitters by 2050, including the potentially central role of hydrogen.
The organisation—which represents the interests of 69 gas infrastructure operators active in transmission, storage and LNG regasification across 26 countries—has near-universal coverage across the continent and deep insight into its interconnections.
“GIE’s vision is that, by 2050, the gas infrastructure will be the backbone of the new innovative energy system, allowing European citizens to benefit from a secure, efficient and sustainable energy supply,” says Boyana Achovski, secretary general of the Brussels-based organisation, which works with European institutions, regulatory bodies and industry stakeholders.
The existing gas infrastructure is a “valuable asset” for the development of the hydrogen value chain within the EU, says Achovski. Her view was backed by European Commission’s executive vice president Frans Timmermans during the presentation of the Recovery Plan for Europe on 28 May 2020.
The EU’s gas transmission network could transport large volumes of hydrogen over long distances with relatively few additional investments. “Existing gas storage sites can easily be transformed to welcome renewable and low-carbon gases such as hydrogen and provide large seasonal storage of renewable and low-carbon energy at low cost,” she says. “Salt caverns will be able to host pure hydrogen thanks to minor retrofitting, and the current assessment on depleted gas fields is showing great potential.”
GIE's Boyana Achovski
LNG terminals are well positioned to develop new services and contribute to the energy transition, she says. “They can decarbonise gas upstream and downstream while being the entry door to imported and exported hydrogen in liquefied form.”
The ability to import in liquefied form bolsters security of supply, providing access to diversified global supplies. These terminals also potentially provide the flexibility to import low-carbon gases, including from renewable sources.
“LNG can reduce CO₂, NOx, SOx emission and noise pollution while improving air quality in transport, power and heat generation,” she says. “Moreover, they have access to areas where renewable energy sources can be cheaper or more abundant.”
The Commission’s Hydrogen Strategy should encourage gas infrastructure operators to support the scaling-up of hydrogen-related technologies in a way that does not distort market competition, complies with the applicable regulatory framework and secures third-party access to maximise societal benefits.
Likewise, the Commission’s Energy System Integration Strategy could also play a key role in the expansion of the hydrogen market. A robust regulatory framework will be required to enable infrastructure operators to undertake the R&D needed to upscale and achieve economies of scale.
“These projects will cover different technologies such as the injection of pure or blended hydrogen, synthetic methane and other renewable and low-carbon gases into gas infrastructures and end-use applications,” she says.
Amendments to EU regulations such as Ten-E will be crucial. “They need to enable network owners to operate several categories of gases [including] H₂, CO₂ and admixtures,” she notes, adding that amendments could provide incentives to help infrastructure owners cope with the coexistence of renewable and low-carbon gases.
GIE has published a position paper discussing the potential role of liquefied biomethane (LBM), liquefied synthetic methane (LSM) and hydrogen-based energy carriers to use existing LNG regasification terminals, setting out detailed proposals.
The reinforcement of energy grids has become generally accepted as crucial to the energy transition, and Achovski suggests the already-operating gas infrastructure is increasingly considered as suitable to address emerging challenges.
“Being an entry gate to Europe for renewable energy, the gas infrastructure transports energy over long distances with sufficient grid capacities every day,” she says. “Seasonal storage capacity is also an asset, as it enables [operators] to balance the energy system and allow the integration of increasing percentages of variable renewable energy sources into the energy system.”
There are several potential decarbonisation pathways, based on various renewable and low-carbon gases and fuels, on the road towards a carbon-neutral EU economy by 2050. “Considering that these pathways will co-exist in different parts of Europe, it will be crucial to ensure a technology-neutral approach,” says Achovski.
Countries such as Denmark or France are set to heavily inject biomethane in the gas grid, while in countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, a hydrogen backbone will emerge to connect different industrial regions.
“Existing gas storage sites can easily be transformed to welcome renewable and low carbon gases such as hydrogen and provide large seasonal storage”
Other countries are switching from coal or oil to gas, combined with a switch to gas-to-power. “It will additionally prepare the energy system for the transition to renewable and low-carbon gases in the next decades, most probably in a blended form,” she says.
“Not only do we have to make the infrastructure ready to transport and store, but we also have to ensure that gas systems remain interoperable to avoid market fragmentation,” she says, adding that a flexible regulatory framework is required.
Hydrogen will make use of the existing gas structure for transport, storage and regasification activities. “We already witness this via the eclectic and innovative projects led by GIE members,” which cover both blended and pure hydrogen activities, Achovski says.
Hydrogen could be injected, to a certain extent, into transmission pipeline and storage infrastructure without significant modification, and this could be combined with the injection of renewable methane. To ensure interoperability, “the harmonisation in the CEN norm should be considered as a minimum threshold, without prejudice to the individual member state, to extend these limits nationally or locally”, she says.
“To respond to gas quality demands of customers, membrane-filter technologies separating hydrogen from natural gas in H₂-CH4 admixtures appear to be an interesting option.”
Hydrogen demand centres, such as industrial clusters, would have to be connected via a dedicated backbone. “Hydrogen transmission can be expanded gradually across borders and markets,” she says.
“Decentralised energy solutions will also gain in importance as gas infrastructure operators are ready to operate power-to-gas in cities and municipalities.”
While clean hydrogen comes with economic challenges, there is undisputed potential for reducing costs for hydrogen-based solutions by making use of existing gas infrastructure with the right investments.
“More ambitious” efforts for exploring the coupling of gas and electricity systems “while fostering sectoral integration to decarbonise all energy sectors” are needed, she says. “It is essential to rely on a coherent approach across multiple sectors… Without joint planning of key infrastructures across electricity and gas, there is a substantial risk of uncoordinated and inefficient investments.”
This is especially the case as there will inevitably be an increasing need for back-up power generation capacity as solar and wind power becomes even more prevalent.
Considering the limited timeframe to become market-ready “short-term supporting schemes should be introduced to enable the upscaling of investment in hydrogen technologies”, she says.
Each EU member state will logically choose the most cost-efficient pathway to decarbonise its economy. This will depend on national circumstances, including technological developments and geographical particularities, so there is likely a role for various types of hydrogen and renewable methane.
GIE gas grid operators “welcome” both blue and green hydrogen, she says. “The aim of a fully developed EU energy market for all gases is to reach comparable levels of market integration, liquidity, diversification, competition and price convergence for the benefit of EU consumers.
“Electrification of end-use energy will then be complemented by end-user appliances that can operate on hydrogen solutions when it is more efficient,” she adds.
“Storage capacities of renewable energy—through sector integration with the conversion of biomass and biowaste to renewable biomethane—will be increased by the gas infrastructure,” she says. “This will enable the delivery of large quantities of renewable energy to consumers and industries such as agriculture not only in Europe, but also in neighbouring countries.”
To produce methane for direct use, or for injection into the gas grid, carbon-neutral options could be used “such as the upgrade of biogas to biomethane and the methanisation of green hydrogen to synthetic methane”, she suggests.
GIE member initiatives and pilot projects
- Austria: Underground Sun Storage by RAG Austria
- Belgium: P2G by Eoly and Fluxys, hydrogen transport and storage by Fluxys and Engie and others; Hy Off Wind by Fluxys and others
- Denmark: M/R Helle by Energinet and others; HyBalance by Energinet and others
- France: Jupiter 1000 by GRTgaz; HyGreen Provence by Engie
- Germany: Bad Lauchstadt Energy Park by Uniper, VNG and Ontras; Membrane filter technology by Ontras and GRTgaz
- Hungary: Hydrogen storage in depleted fields by Hungarian Gas Storage
- Italy: Blending hydrogen for decarbonisation by Snam (injection of a hydrogen and natural gas mix in the high-pressure transmission network
- The Netherlands: North Sea Wind Power Hub by Energinet and Gasunie; NortH2 by Gasunie and others
- Poland and Denmark: The Baltic Pipe project
- UK: HyNTS, hydrogen injection into the National Transmission System and hydrogen deblending by National Grid