25 May 2023
Creating a carbon-neutral, flexible gas network
Darren Elsom, Director of Hydrogen Development & Operations at Cadent talks about how biogas and hydrogen will help shape a gas system fit for the future.
Natural gas currently plays a crucial role in satisfying many of our energy requirements. It is essential to heat our homes and workplaces, supports electricity generation and fuels UK industry as well as our transport and logistics sector. However, the pressure to decarbonise our energy system, to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, means that we need to find suitable alternatives to natural gas.
“Natural gas will likely continue to play an important role in the next two decades,” explains Darren, “our gas grid currently heats 85% of UK homes, it provides electricity generation, as well as powering industry and sectors that rely on gas for fuel, including heavy goods transport.”
“However, hydrogen and biogas are emerging as promising carbon-neutral alternatives to decarbonise and future-proof our gas system. To create the flexible, low-carbon gas grid we need, it’s important we move past the R&D stage and start deploying these gases at scale.”
Harnessing the potential of biomethane
The team at Cadent believes biomethane will form an important part of our transition when it comes to supplying its customers with ‘greener gas’ in the future. The company already has 43 anaerobic digestion (AD) plants connected to its network, producing enough power to heat over 275,000 homes on an annual basis. The most recent to be connected is in Attleborough, Norfolk. Here, the feedstock is organic and food waste, making the plant a real asset in circular economy terms and a great example of sustainable energy production.
As Darren explains, ‘The Attleborough AD plant provided a perfect example of reduce, reuse, recycle in action recently, when 18 tonnes of unsaleable apples arrived on UK shores. Rather than sending them to landfill, or back to their destination, with the associated costs and carbon footprint, they were used to feed the AD plant. Even the wooden apple crates were saved to be reused by a local farmer for turnips. In essence, the 4000 homes surrounding the Attleborough plant were fuelling their boilers to get heating and hot water for several days from unwanted apples.
It’s a sustainability success story, and one we’re hoping to see more of in the future. As more local authorities implement the segregation of food waste from homes, this use of food waste for energy production could provide a significant boost to net zero progress.”
Achieving flexibility and balance with hydrogen
Cadent also believes that hydrogen gas will be critical to the net zero transition, and particularly to meeting the flexibility and storage requirements associated with renewable electricity generation. Today, around 40% of our UK electricity is produced using natural gas. Gas plays an important integrated role in our energy system.
“Cadent currently has over 150 power generation plants connected to its network”, Darren tells us, “We’re talking about natural gas supplying power plants that produce electricity. It means that gas and electricity are far more connected than many people realise, and that replacing natural gas with low or zero carbon hydrogen will be important to the resilience and stability of our energy system as we move towards net zero.
Equally, electrification simply isn’t an option for heavy industry, energy intensive processes and large swathes of the transport industry. “There are organisations that want to decarbonise but can’t do it through electrification. Hydrogen provides a realistic alternative here. And when it comes to transport, there’s also a huge role for hydrogen. Cadent currently has 13 compressed natural gas filling stations connected to its network, and we’re seeing organisations want to move away from diesel to make carbon savings”.
Heating for domestic homes is another area where hydrogen may have a part to play. While the debate over hydrogen versus heat pumps continues, Darren doesn’t believe it’s an either/or situation, “What we do know is that we have a gas system today that runs up and down our streets and between our homes; we’re able to move vast amounts of energy around. In the winter, when the demand is higher and perhaps we can’t get enough renewable electricity capacity through the grid, we still need to be able to heat people’s homes effectively. That’s where hydrogen can play a part in domestic heating too. It’s so versatile, with such a broad spectrum of possible applications that it is surely going to be an integral part of how we get to net zero.”
“The technology is already there”
The good news is that the technology required to transition to a low-carbon gas grid is already being created. Several heavy goods vehicle (HGV) models are already running on biogas, and hydrogen-fuelled models are being developed. The aviation industry is also investigating the potential of hydrogen, with Cadent already liaising with several airports to understand how to best reap the benefits.
New challenges for shippers and suppliers
Achieving a net zero gas grid will also necessitate change for shippers and suppliers, particularly in relation to billing methodologies. “Shippers will have to adjust to a new way of transporting, storing and distributing gas to industrial customers,” points out Darren, “particularly in the early days of cluster development.”
From R&D to delivery
Despite leading the way with innovative R&D projects that are serving as inspiration to other countries, the UK is in danger of falling behind. Darren believes that coordinated action from the Government and gas industry will be needed if we are to achieve our goals. “Decisions need to be made, questions about where investment comes from need to be answered. In the UK, we need to come together to make things happen. It’s now time to move past R&D and deliver the low-carbon, technologically-advanced gas grid the UK deserves. Ultimately, it’s time to get on with it.”
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