Renewable Gas : National Grid

The week before last, I attended the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG) and Energy Networks Association (ENA) event entitled “Gas – Delivering for Customers and Supporting the Low Carbon Economy“.

There were a number of interesting presentations, but I was most encouraged by that from Lorna Millington, Design Manager in Network Strategy for National Grid. The title of her presentation was “Delivering Renewable Gas”, and at first I thought she was going to talk about what other companies are doing, and how National Grid can assist them. But as she talked, I realised she was talking about National Grid itself being an integral part of the projects. This kind of tears up the rulebook, I thought to myself, as officially, because of competition issues, National Grid cannot be involved in the production of gas or power, only the distribution of gas and the transmission of power. On reflection, I can see that it is inevitable that National Grid needs to be a central part of the development of the production of Renewable Gas, as it is the building of energy resource manufacturing capability that spans business sectors. Any substitute for Natural Gas injected into the gas grid would need close partnership with National Grid. Any gas waste that was being recycled into Renewable Gas intended for injection into the gas grid would need cooperation with National Grid. There must be some kind of problem defining where National Grid’s responsibilities cease, though, as they needed to spin off a company for the carbon dioxide pipeline plans for the White Rose project : National Grid Carbon Limited (NGC).

Lorna Millington began her presentation by answering a common question posed to her team – Renewable Gas – why is this renewable ? Well, although biogas and biomethane are sourced from biomass, some forms of manufactured gas have non-biomass waste as feedstocks, so this is a valid question. The answer, Lorna said, was to understand that manufactured gas is zero net carbon – in other words – zero additional carbon dioxide (and methane) emissions to the atmosphere. Plants grow, taking up carbon dioxide, and then die and are used as biomass, releasing carbon dioxide, but the net total additional emissions are zero. Of course, when you do a whole life cycle analysis, using some forms of non-biomass waste for gas manufacture are clearly not renewable or sustainable – particularly if they were originally derived from fossil fuels – for example, plastics. However, using non-biomass waste to make energy potentially displaces the use of fossil fuels for energy, so is useful as a step in the decarbonisation of energy, generally.

The other key part to the term “renewable”, Lorna explained, is that manufactured low carbon gas can use the same gas distribution network as Natural Gas. I interpreted this as meaning that since there is no need to replace gas pipelines and storage facilities in developing Renewable Gas, this makes the whole gas infrastructure renewable – or “re-usable”, and current gas grid use “sustainable”. Lorna said that she anticipated new consumers of gas in future – including high pressure ones – and that approximately 25 terawatt hours (TWh) of Biomethane would be gas grid connected by the end of 2015, comprising around 50 projects, bringing Renewable Gas to homes. She said that the only risk to this would be if the rate of return of plant operation was affected. She said there was some uncertainty about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) policy and that this was “stifling markets”.

Lorna Millington said that National Grid is considering the next stage in production – scale. BioSNG – synthetic Natural Gas made from biomass – the difference with the other current techniques for producing gas is the amount of gas we can produce. She noted that the availability of suitable biomass is a key – these BioSNG techniques increase the range of possible feedstocks – they are not able to use some of these in traditional Anaerobic Digestion (AD – used to produce Biogas and Biomethane). Lorna said that with a combination of AD and gasification-based BioSNG production, there is a potential for roughly 100 TWh of gas that can be manufactured – a third of all residential/domestic demand in homes. She said, “We see this as a way of decarbonising heat”. She indicated that Renewable Gas could supply up to a half of residential/domestic gas demand in homes – which would be the case if there is a strong energy demand reduction programme – for example, to vastly increase insulation in buildings.

Lorna Millington emphasised that National Grid Gas is operating within the regulatory framework, and co-operating with Ofgem, in pursuing a BioSNG project, “GoGreenGas”, working with Swindon Council and other partners. She said that the anticipated cost of the first Renewable Gas would be £50 for each megawatt hour (MWh) in 2020, but reduce to £20/MWh within 5 years after that. She said that “This will make gasification the right choice for the UK”, as National Grid anticipate that Natural Gas will cost £24/MWh by then. She said that for this projection to become a reality, the industry needs clarity on the RHI now – providing short-term subsidies. Lorna Millington said that National Grid recognise that BioSNG is likely to be cost-competitive well within a couple of decades and be used for heating and transport in the same form as CNG – Compressed Natural Gas. She said that electric drive is the right choice for urban vehicles – but that there is no right choice for long haul, but that CNG would be helpful in reducing air and noise pollution.

Lorna Millington said that the ideal location for beginning the development of a Renewable Gas network is in the West Midlands – where access to the gas grid via different pressure sections is available. This is also where a large percentage of haulage passes through. She said that linking the development of Renewable Gas to transport will increase system capacity and reduce costs. She said that CNG can easily cope with all large transportation demand. She mentioned Leyland CNG high pressure filling station – the first CNG filling station – on Junction 28 of the M6 “if you’ve ever been that far north”. She also mentioned Birmingham City Council’s Low Carbon Blueprint, which also has transport in its sights.

For BioSNG development, Lorna Millington said that policy needs to create (or negotiate) a price differential to ensure investment. This is the case for all new technologies.

After Lorna Millington finished addressing the room, Tony Glover said that there is a sense of excitement about some of these projects, and that the Energy Networks Association (ENA) Energy Networks and Futures Group will be looking at energy mapping – in the light of Renewable Gas potential – but he wasn’t saying much more at that point…

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