As policymakers look for strategies to decarbonize different sectors of the economy, a simple fact is that electrification alone is insufficient to decarbonize the energy sector.
Another simple fact, about 80% of the world’s energy is currently consumed as a molecule while the remaining 20% is consumed as an electron.
A third simple fact, replacing all of this molecule-based consumption with electricity while maintaining redundancy and reliability provided by natural gas during peak load in particular, is not just extremely challenging both economically and practically, but impossible. Electrification sounds like a simple solution, but it’s not practical, especially considering the infrastructure impacts to support electrification.
Fortunately, the natural gas industry has begun the process of decarbonizing the molecule-based share of energy production and consumption in order to achieve climate change targets.
The industry is making steady progress in carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies, as well as renewable natural gas (RNG), responsibly sourced gas (RSG) and carbon-free hydrogen – all of which will play a vital role in decarbonizing the natural gas sector.
One is the combination of natural gas with CCUS, either as a direct source of energy or to produce blue hydrogen – i.e. splitting hydrogen from natural gas and capturing, storing or utilizing the carbon dioxide left over.
Hydrogen, like natural gas, is a versatile molecule and offers a clean-burning solution for hard-to-electrify sectors. Parts of our economy will be difficult if not impossible to electrify, especially in the industrial sectors requiring high heat like steel, cement, glass manufacturing, or long-distance heavy-haul transportation like trucks, trains, marine shipping and aviation.
Hydrogen, transported using the natural gas pipeline infrastructure, can be converted to replace fossil-derived fuels and feedstocks, including natural gas, along with jet fuel, ammonia, methanol and others. Unlike energy stored in batteries, energy stored as hydrogen does not deplete while waiting to be used, making it much more flexible for longer durations.
RNG is methane captured from existing food waste, animal manure, wastewater sludge and garbage — then redirected from the environment and repurposing it as a clean energy source that can even be carbon-negative. RNG can be a game-changer because it reduces the impacts of organic wastes, while also serving as a high-impact fuel.
A blend of natural gas, RNG and hydrogen can result in a pipeline supply aligned with emissions targets while maintaining the reliability and affordability of the overall energy system. Because of the lower carbon intensity of some of hydrogen or the negative intensity of some RNG, it is possible to achieve a carbon-neutral pipeline supply without removing natural gas from the system.
The gaseous, molecular fuel system is a key partner to electrification in the decarbonized energy system of the future.