'Gas is Over' Says European Union Bank President

But a lot of gas utilities haven't got the message.

Enbridge Storage
Hydrogen Storage in Markham, Ontario.

Enbridge Gas

Canadian company Enbridge Gas recently announced a hydrogen blending project in Markham Ontario, where they will blend "green" hydrogen made with surplus electricity into their natural gas distribution system. According to the release, "Through this pilot project, Enbridge Gas will initially provide a maximum hydrogen blended content of up to two percent of the natural gas supplied to approximately 3,600 customers in Markham, Ontario in Q3-2021, abating up to 117 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere."

The electricity comes from the province's Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), the organization that manages the distribution, "to balance electricity supply and demand – and it’s proven an effective solution to the challenge of storing the province’s surplus electrical energy using existing pipeline infrastructure." This makes sense in Ontario right now, when there is often surplus electricity from nuclear and hydroelectric plants at night. Whether there will be a surplus in the future is another question; an expert told Treehugger that utilities are worried about selling "excess capacity now without recognizing that it is needed domestically to electrify everything." Or that electric cars might soon be sucking up all this power overnight.

Enbridge power to gas
Enbridge Gas

Enbridge's 2% maximum is well below what is being done in Europe, where they push it to 5% and may push it as high as 25% by volume. However hydrogen has a much lower energy density than natural gas for a given volume, so, according to S&P Global, "as hydrogen blending increases, the average calorific content of the blended gas falls, and thus an increased volume of blended gas must be consumed to meet the same energy needs. For instance, a 5% blending by volume of hydrogen would only displace 1.6% of natural gas demand." The reason that the percentage of hydrogen cannot go much higher is that it would require the replacement of equipment; according to S&P, "some costly challenges of high volume blending include steel embrittlement of pipeline material and damage to burners caused by fuel combustion aberrations."

Does This Make Sense?

Signatories to the letter
Signatories to the letter. 33 Organizations and businesses

They are much more advanced in Europe in their discussions about hydrogen; we have noted that the UK Committee on Climate Change thinks it has a big role to play in domestic heating. Others are not so sure; a coalition of 33 businesses, associations and NGOs calls on the European Commission to go for efficiency first. They write:

"While some believe that challenging renovation of buildings and the retrofitting of renewable heating systems could be avoided by introducing hydrogen for heating our buildings, the reality is different. It is true that renewable hydrogen can play a role in decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors, but its direct use for heating on a large scale is problematic because it comes with many uncertainties linked to the scalability, costs of its production and inefficiencies. In the medium and long-term, to optimise the process of heat decarbonisation, energy efficiency options must be favoured because they can immediately deliver real carbon savings, while accommodating a growing share of renewable sources."

To be fair and balanced, many of the signatories in the coalition behind the letter sell insulation and electrical equipment and are biased towards efficiency and electrifying everything. There are no gas companies involved. However, Adrian Hiel of Energy Cities tells Treehugger what they are up against:

"The coalition is a counterweight to the constant drumbeat of fossil fuel lobbyists in Brussels telling us that hydrogen is the solution to all of our problems. It will be important in some sectors, but it is madness to put green hydrogen in uses where existing, cost-efficient and far more efficient solutions exist."

"Gas is Over"

European Investment Bank (EIB) President Werner Hoyer
European Investment Bank (EIB) President Werner Hoyer. Thierry Tronnel/Corbis via Getty Images

Only last year, The European Commission was looking at natural gas as a bridge to renewable energy. Climate Chief Frans Timmermans said, “There’s one thing I have to acknowledge: in some areas of transition, the use of natural gas will probably be necessary to shift from coal to sustainable energy.” But the thinking is changing. Now Dr. Werner Hoyer, President of the European Investment Bank, says

“To put it mildly, gas is over. This is a serious departure from the past, but without the end to the use of unabated fossil fuels, we will not be able to reach the climate targets.” 

According to Kira Taylor of EURACTIV, the bank will still support green hydrogen projects, and "more finance will go towards energy efficiency projects, renewable energy projects, green innovation and research." Investment in natural gas is off the table.

One can certainly understand why gas companies like Enbridge love the idea of mixing hydrogen into their product; it keeps their pipes full, and gives them a reason for being. One can see why governments like those in the UK or Canada love this because it keeps that whole sector of the economy going, and fixing every house and building in the country is going to be very expensive. But Dr. Hoyer is right, gas is over, and mixing in hydrogen will not delay the inevitable. Last word to Adrian Hiel:

"The myths being peddled by the fossil fuel industry when it comes to home heating will be found out in time. But the cost of that time is too expensive when we think of the decarbonization challenge ahead of us."