Why Combining Gas and Renewables Is the Fastest Route to Decarbonization

By Johnny Wood
Gas is the perfect partner for renewables like offshore wind
Source: MHI Vestas

Natural gas can rapidly cut carbon emissions by replacing fuels like coal in baseload power generation. It can also support the greater rollout of renewables by providing backup capacity to overcome intermittency challenges.

For these two reasons, it has a pivotal role to play on the road to a low-carbon energy sector. That was the view offered by delegates and speakers at the gas industry’s largest annual event, Gastech, which took place last year in Houston, Texas.

It is a view that led Nadeem Babar, Pakistan’s special assistant to the prime minister on petroleum, to tell Gastech delegates they were living in “the reign of gas”.

Powerful Partners

In the quest to reduce carbon emissions, natural gas has emerged as the go-to fuel to help meet growing global energy demand.

McKinsey predicts that fossil fuels will continue to be a dominant feature of energy use through to the middle of the century, accompanying the growth of renewables, like offshore wind and solar power.

When used to generate electricity, gas emits 50% less carbon dioxide than coal and cuts nitrogen oxide and other particles by more than three-quarters, making it comparatively cleaner than other fossil fuels. As well as providing cleaner baseload generating capacity, natural gas can play a vital role in reducing emissions in hard-to-abate heavy industries, such as steelmaking, which have long been fueled by coal.

“We need to electrify and mostly that must be via renewables, but you can’t have that without the system balancing that natural gas provides,” De La Rey Venter, executive vice president of integrated gas ventures at Shell, said at Gastech.

Balancing Imbalances

Far from being merely a transition fuel, the reign of gas could extend far into the future as it is best placed to support the rise of renewables.

“Wind and solar have a significant problem,” Alex Volkov, vice president and head of LNG Marketing at ExxonMobil, explained at the event. “It is intermittency. And really, there's not a solution out there that exists today that could solve that problem economically.”

While batteries can store surplus energy from renewables, this is only sufficient to balance short-term fluctuations in demand for, and supply of, renewable energy – from a few minutes to a few hours. But when it comes to balancing vast seasonal changes in energy demand, fuels like natural gas can be brought online quickly to overcome intermittency issues.

Volkov concluded that natural gas is here to stay, noting the future potential of carbon capture utilization and storage initiatives could effectively turn it into a “green fuel”.

Global Reach

The combination of lower emissions and falling prices makes natural gas an attractive proposition for the fast-growing economies of regions like Asia, which are eager to decarbonize.

Meg Gentle, president and CEO of Tellurian Inc., spoke at Gastech about the growth in LNG takeup from countries like China and India, and smaller developing nations where coal has featured heavily in the power mix.

The booming global liquified natural gas market has been fueled to a large extent by exports of U.S. shale gas, which has brought affordable, accessible natural gas within reach of new markets around the globe.

Coal production fell 20% in the first half of 2019, Maria Rita Galli, executive VP of business development at Snam, explained. “Gas prices made the real difference, producing an enormous switch-off of coal.”

Greater global access to natural gas, combined with continued low prices of U.S. shale gas and the falling costs of renewable energy, means the future energy landscape will look very different to today.

Old and new markets are realizing the environmental and economic value of natural gas, both in the transition to a decarbonized energy sector and as a long-term complement to sustainable energy sources.

Johnny Wood has been a journalist for over 15 years working in different parts of the world – Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. As well as an accomplished features writer he has edited several prestigious lifestyle magazines and corporate publications.