Blog posts

Biogas and biomethane emissions – a quick win for decarbonising future energy systems?

In our latest blog, Dr Semra Bakkaloglu reflects on our newly published research into biogas and biomethane emissions.

Over 100 years, methane has 27.2 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. So when it comes to climate change, it’s pretty potent stuff. Methane concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing, which makes it a quick-win target in the drive to decarbonise our global energy system.

It’s no coincidence that over 100 countries signed the Global Methane Pledge at COP26 in Glasgow. The pledge is a commitment to reduce methane emissions by 30% (from 2020 levels) by 2030. But a 30% reduction is ambitious, not to mention a complete reversal of the current trajectory of increasing methane emissions. Achieving that will require a combination of measures, which include reducing emissions from the existing supply chain whilst also reducing reliance on natural gas as a fuel by switching to cleaner energy alternatives, such as electrification or hydrogen.

But those new energy alternatives are at wildly different stages of technological readiness and require major infrastructure changes and investment. They are unlikely to happen overnight – and many are unlikely to become mainstream within the next 8 years.

One sector that is expected to grow and contribute to decarbonisation in that transition period is biogas and biomethane – a mixture of gases (mostly methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2)) produced from biodegradable materials. It’s a technology with a lot of factors in its favour: the volume of organic waste – known as feedstock – generated by modern societies is increasing, it provides a beneficial alternative disposal method for that waste, and conversion of energy from waste to biogas can begin to replace fossil fuel gas – which in turn reduces overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Ultimately it contributes to meeting those government commitments.

But biogas and biomethane production can also emit methane and it’s an area that’s been lacking in research. No study has assessed methane emissions from the biogas and biomethane supply chain – until now.

For our recent study, we synthesised methane emissions from the biogas and biomethane supply chains by breaking down stages and identifying key elements from direct measurements studies. We used a statistical model Monte Carlo approach to estimate aggregate methane emissions with uncertainty assessment, which can account for up to 343 g CO2-eq. We observed that biogas and biomethane supply chains exhibit similar emission characteristics to oil and natural gas with super-emitters present at all stages. In our study, 62% of the emissions come from just 5% of the point sources – these super-emitters waste a disproportionately large amount of methane

“..62% of the emissions come from just 5% of the point sources – these super-emitters waste a disproportionately large amount of methane.”

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) inventory, (the only other benchmark data currently available) estimated total methane emissions from bioenergy to be 9.1 Tg in 2021.

Our study, which only looked at one aspect of bioenergy (biomethane), discovered that methane emissions are more likely to be in the range of 6.4 – 7.8 Tg per year (95th percentile), but the average methane emissions are around 2.8 Tg according to the IEA’s global biogas and biomethane generation rate 1.47 EJ in 2018. If biogas and biomethane production are expanded to the same scale as the oil and natural gas industries and no action is taken, they could emit almost 4 times as much methane as oil and gas supply chains (82.5 Tg in 2021). At present, our results indicate they are high – higher even than natural gas, which is clearly a worry.

Considering the latest IPCC-AR6-WG3 climate change mitigation scenarios that achieve the Paris Agreement 1.5°C temperature rise mitigation target with low or no overshoot, we can see that biogas and methane could have up to 28 EJ of production by 2050. Using our mean emissions rate (52.3 g CO2-eq per MJHHV) from this study, this would result in 53.8 Tg methane emissions. This drives home the point that it is extremely important to reduce biogas and biomethane emissions for these energy sources to play a constructive role in our future energy system.

Finding and removing these large emitters is a critical step toward significantly reducing overall emissions from biomethane and natural gas supply chains. It’s not just about controlling greenhouse gases either. There’s a significant economic argument for addressing emissions – all that lost gas has a commercial value.

According to the European Biogas Association (EBA), biomethane can be produced for as little as €55 per MWh, while natural gas costs around €80 per MWh. When our findings are combined with the cost of biomethane, we can calculate that emitting 2.8 Tg of methane per year in average (based on the IEA’s global biomethane and biogas generation rate for 2018) can result in an average a global economic loss of 2.4 billion euros in average.

“… emitting 2.8 Tg of methane per year can result in a global economic loss of €2.4billion in average.”

Through improved design, detection, measurement, and repair techniques, much of the observed emissions can be avoided. If we focus on super-emitters, there are some potential quick wins too. We found that the digestate stage and upgrading units need the most attention in this regard. There’s a lot of overlap with oil and natural gas supply chains too – preventing gas venting, reducing flaring activities and designing a closed unit with a vapour recovery system can all contribute to reducing emissions.

Additionally, we need better regulations, continuous emission measurements, and close collaboration with biogas plant operators in order to address methane emissions and meet the Paris Agreement temperature target.

We know what we need to do to tackle those emissions; the important thing is to get started right away. Biomethane is an important renewable energy source, but it could be even better! Combating biomethane emissions is not only significant for meeting Paris Agreement’s target but also boosting the global economy.

Hydrogen and other short lived climate pollutants – is the time horizon important?

 

Dr Jasmin Cooper, Research Associate here at Imperial’s Sustainable Gas Institute, shares the work being done to model the potential global warming impacts of H2 emissions in possible future supply chains.


Short lived climate pollutants are greenhouse gases which stay in the atmosphere for much less time than carbon dioxide (CO2). Despite this, they are much more powerful than CO2 and can trap as much heat as thousands of kilograms of CO2 on a mass-to-mass basis (Table 1).

Table 1: Properties of different greenhouse gases (Derwent, 2018, Derwent et al., 2001, Derwent et al., 2018, Derwent et al., 2020, Field and Derwent, 2021, Forster et al., 2021, Myhre et al., 2013, IPCC, 2007).
Greenhouse gas GWP over 500-year time horizon GWP over 100-year time horizon GWP over 20-year time horizon Lifetime in the atmosphere
Carbon dioxide 1 1 1 Hundreds of years
Methane 7.6 29.8±11 82.5±25.8 12 years
Black carbon 900±800 3,200 (+300/-2,930) A few weeks
Hydrofluorocarbonsa 435 1,526±577 4,144±1,160 15 years
Hydrogen 4.3 to 10 Four to seven years
afor the hydrofluorocarbon HFC-134a.

In recent years methane (CH4) has emerged as the most important short lived climate pollutant with the IPCC’s AR6 report finding that emissions of it must be cut for 1.5°C or 2°C temperature targets to be met (IPCC, 2021, McGrath, 2021). This is because it is, at present, the second most important greenhouse gas, being responsible for around 30% of global warming to date (McPhie, 2021). It is also the second most emitted greenhouse gas e.g. in 2019 the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions were 80% CO2, 12% CH4, 5% nitrous oxide and 3% fluorinated gases (BEIS, 2021). As energy systems move away from fossil fuels, hydrogen (H2) could replace natural gas in areas that are difficult to decarbonise through electrification, such as heavy industry and heat.

H2 is a greenhouse gas, but unlike CH4 it is an indirect greenhouse gas. It does not absorb and trap heat but interferes with other (direct) greenhouse gases by enhancing their warming potential (Derwent, 2018). Therefore, in a world where H2 is used in a way akin to natural gas is now, there is the potential for H2 to be emitted into the atmosphere and contribute towards global warming. While there is limited literature available which estimates the impacts of it in the atmosphere, some as-yet to be peer reviewed research suggests short-term forcing from H2 could be higher than that of methane.

Here at the SGI, we have been modelling the potential global warming impacts of H2 emissions in possible future supply chains. When a 100-year time horizon is considered, H2 will likely not impose extra burdens to meeting Paris Agreement goals. However, if shorter time horizons and other climate metrics are considered, the impacts of H2 could be greater, as short-lived climate pollutants exhibit the majority of their warming impacts in the first few years of being emitted. This is an area where more research is needed, as it is important to fully understand the climate impacts of H2 if it is to become a key energy source.

Figure 1: Temperature response curve of various greenhouse gases (Myhre et al., 2013).

Whilst short lived climate pollutants are important, CO2 is still the most important greenhouse gas because its atmospheric lifetime is long (hundreds of years), and its warming effect is stable (Figure 1). Therefore, when comparing greenhouse gases and creating strategies to tackle global warming, it is important that attention not be drawn away from CO2 i.e. making large cuts to methane emission cannot be used as an excuse to slow down rates of decarbonisation. While short lived climate pollutants are important in the fight against climate change, caution should be used when pitting greenhouse gases against one another based on their GWP, especially GWP over 100-year horizons.

This could lead to unintended consequences either side. For example, a shift away from the importance of CO2 resulting in decarbonisation rates slowing down, or non-CO2 greenhouse gases not being given enough attention and consequentially little action being taken to mitigate emissions.

Overall, the time-horizon considered when comparing greenhouse gases to other another is important but what is more important is the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted. GWP is a useful metric to promote the importance of emissions abatement of non-CO2 greenhouse gases, but its importance becomes less pronounced when emissions are vastly reduced.


References 

BEIS. 2021. 2019 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Final Figures London, UK; Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Available:’ https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/957887/2019_Final_greenhouse_gas_emissions_statistical_release.pdf

Derwent, R. 2018. Hydrogen for heating: atmospheric impacts – a literature review London, UK; Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Available:’ https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/atmospheric-impacts-of-hydrogen-literature-review

Derwent, R. G., Collins, W. J., Johnson, C. E. & Stevenson, D. S. 2001. Transient Behaviour of Tropospheric Ozone Precursors in a Global 3-D CTM and Their Indirect Greenhouse Effects. Climatic Change, 49, 463-487. 10.1023/A:1010648913655

Derwent, R. G., Parrish, D. D., Galbally, I. E., Stevenson, D. S., Doherty, R. M., Naik, V. & Young, P. J. 2018. Uncertainties in models of tropospheric ozone based on Monte Carlo analysis: Tropospheric ozone burdens, atmospheric lifetimes and surface distributions. Atmospheric Environment, 180, 93-102.

Derwent, R. G., Stevenson, D. S., Utembe, S. R., Jenkin, M. E., Khan, A. H. & Shallcross, D. E. 2020. Global modelling studies of hydrogen and its isotopomers using STOCHEM-CRI: Likely radiative forcing consequences of a future hydrogen economy. International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, 45, 9211-9221. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhydene.2020.01.125

Field, R. & Derwent, R. 2021. Global warming consequences of replacing natural gas with hydrogen in the domestic energy sectors of future low-carbon economies in the United Kingdom and the United States of America. International Journal of Hydrogen Energy.

Forster, P., Storelvmo, T., Armour, K., Collins, W., Dufresne, J. L., Frame, D., Lunt, D. J., Mauritsen, T., Palmer, M. D., Watanabe, M., Wild, M. & Zhang, H. 2021. The Earth’s Energy Budget, Climate Feedbacks, and Climate Sensitivity. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Cambridge, UK and New York, USA; Cambridge University Press. Available:’ https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_Full_Report.pdf

IPCC. 2007. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge, UK and New York, USA; Cambridge University Press. Available:’ https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/05/ar4_wg1_full_report-1.pdf

IPCC. 2021. AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, Geneva, CH; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Available:’ https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/

McGrath, M. 2021. Climate change: Five things we have learned from the IPCC report. BBC News.

McPhie, T. 2021. International Methane Emissions Observatory launched to boost action on powerful climate-warming gas [Press Release]. Brussels, BE. Available: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_21_5636.

Myhre, G., Shindell, D., Bréon, F. M., Collins, W., Fuglestvedt, J., Huang, J., Koch, D., Lamarque, J. F., Lee, D., Mendoza, B., Nakajima, T., Robock, A., Stephens, G., Takemura, T. & Zhang, H. 2013. Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forc- ing. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge, UK and New York, USA; Cambridge University Press. Available:’ https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WG1AR5_Chapter08_FINAL.pdf

BOOK REVIEW: The New Map, by Daniel Yergin

By Pooya Hoseinpoori, Research Assistant, SGI

The global energy landscape has changed dramatically over the last decade. Three macro trends have reshaped the energy market and the global energy map over the past decade: the shale boom in the US, the growing role of renewable energy, and the rise of climate policies and government funding. Daniel Yergin, a veteran energy analyst, explores the new energy maps emerging from these changes in his latest book, “The New Map, Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations”. The global energy map has changed significantly since Mr Yergin published “The Quest” in 2011. In the New MAP, he updates and expands his analysis of technological advances, energy and geopolitical changes and presents a compelling narrative of developments that have disrupted the energy world over the past decade.

The New Map opens with the new US map and the shale revolution, which raised the supply and lowered the price of oil and gas, and reshaped traditional oil and gas relations and geopolitics by changing the US’s position on the global energy market. Next is Russia’s map shaped by geopolitical competition and conflicts over un­resolved borders from the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as a pivot to the east strategy and alliance with China. Then there is the new China map with its massive, ambitious international investment strategy known as the Belt and Road Initiative and its strategic plans for securing its commodity trade flows across the South China Sea. The Middle east’s map comes next in the book, formed by frontiers and rivalries and an economy highly dependent on oil and gas revenues. Last is the roadmap of the future and the climate maps discussing how the transition to a low carbon energy system might play out.

Like his previous books, the New MAP is full of detailed stories and interesting statistics about changes and events that formed these new maps: “By 2019 the unconventional revolution (shale boom) was supporting over 2.8 million jobs in the US”, “The US trade deficit in 2019 was 309 billion lower than it would have been if there was no shale revolution”, “China is building eight new airports a year”, “In 2019, $25 million cars were sold in China”, “Between 2006 and 2013 China’s gas consumption tripled” and also stories on Russia’s pivoting to east strategy and the new level of cooperation between China and Russia: “At the same time president Putin and president Xi were making pancakes together, their military joined in a large war game in the Far East”, “Chinese would provide the financing for a massive new $45 billion power of Siberia gas pipeline”, “Russia’s $25 billion investment on ESPO oil pipeline facilitated by $80 billion prepayment China made to Rosneft for deliveries over the next twenty five years”. Through all these statistics and stories, Mr Yergin sets the context for his contention that oil and gas will continue to be part of the ongoing energy mix, and their role remains a central theme of global energy order in the upcoming decades.

Yergin does not doubt climate change or question the transition to green energy. In his book, he discusses the substantial progress made in renewable energy and suggests that the use of wind and solar power will continue to grow despite the obstacles still standing in their way. He also provides a thorough history of the electric car (which I really enjoyed) and suggests that EVs will become commonplace and that governments will impose greater restrictions on fossil fuel use to combat climate change. He acknowledges that a change like this will eventually occur. But he believes that energy transformation is a gradual process that will take a very long time, and he is unconvinced that this will occur at the ambitious rates promised by net-zero targets. In his opinion, climate change concerns are not yet strong enough to majorly alter geopolitical orders or reshape development plans.

The New Map has been met with mixed reactions and responses, with the majority of critiques being directed at Yergin’s stance on energy transition. While some criticised him for being “so embedded in old patterns of thought that he can’t quite recognise the urgency of the climate crisis”, in the eyes of some, “he is injecting reality into expectations of the energy transition”. I share Yergin’s doubts about optimistic transition rates and very ambitious net-zero targets. My critique, however, goes to other chapters in which I found his perspectives US-centric and also primarily focused on oil and gas producing countries, with China being the only big demand centre discussed. I was hoping to read more about developing countries and new MAPs for Africa, India, or South America. Overall though, in my opinion, the New Map is timely and a fitting follow-up to his previous books “The Quest” and “The Prize”.

Ref 1) https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2020/10/book-review-the-new-map-by-daniel-yergin/

Ref 2) https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/daniel-yergin-bill-mckibben-new-map-book-review-energy-oil-climate-crisis-b672002.html

Ref 3) https://www.pressreader.com/usa/usa-today internationaledition/20200917/281848646024355

Ref 4) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ye1EIY2p-wo

Ref 5) “The New Map, Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations”, Daniel Yergin, Penguin Press 2020

 

BOOK REVIEW: ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need’, by Bill Gates

By Semra Bakkaloglu, Research Associate, SGI

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates is also a short book (288 pages). Because the majority of respected environmental books have been authored by scientist and social activists, Gates’s entrepreneurial approach is intriguing. Despite his lack of expertise on the subject, this book is reader-friendly and accessible to anybody with an interest in the subject. He simplifies the science, explains why and how climate change is occurring, and discusses the importance of achieving a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions goal, as well as how we can do so using existing technology and necessary innovation.

Gates explains how to get zero emissions from the world’s annual emissions of 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases. He focuses on emissions from five industries: electricity, manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and heating and cooling systems. In each chapter, he discusses each sector’s emissions and various technologies for reducing emissions. Predictably, his book emphasis the carbon-free technology solutions for the energy system to eliminate a greater percentage of our overall emissions. He highlights how important it is to electrify as much human activity as possible. He is concerned that solar panels and wind turbines are not as efficient as nuclear power in the energy sector. Obviously, he supports the world’s use of nuclear power in the coming years and encourages investment and technological advancements in that sector. He does not, however, go into detail about the future of hydrogen usage, which the entire world is moving toward. He also avoids addressing waste sector emissions throughout the book, particularly how to deal with nuclear waste when advocating for nuclear power. On the other hand, I think he does a great job in the final chapters of summarising the government’s role in combating climate change.

The book didn’t teach me much, but I get the impression that its real purpose is to pique the interest of people who have been complacent up to this point. It does provide an exceptionally detailed overview of the potential answers that are worth exploring. I urge that newcomers to climate change read this book. The concepts expressed here by one of the world’s most admired billionaires will not disappoint you.

 

BOOK REVIEW: “Sustainability for the Rest of Us: Your No-Bullsh*t, Five-Point Plan for Saving the Planet” by John Pabon

By Zara Qadir, Communications Manager

“Sustainability for the Rest of Us: Your No-Bullsh*t, Five-Point Plan for Saving the Planet” by John Pabon is a short book (just 200 pages) and a definite page-turner for those who want to delve beyond the hype. The book makes you think critically about sustainability (‘as not all giving is equal’) as well as providing a simple plan and crash course guide to sustainability terminology. Pabon talks about how to spot greenwashing and how often philanthropy is misplaced by those who are well-meaning. However, he also highlights projects that have had a real positive impact on communities and the environment.

Pabon describes himself as a pragmatic altruist, and tells us that ‘passion, without pragmatism, is just complaining’. His book is a witty, bold, and refreshing read that makes you feel uncomfortable sometimes. However, his overall advice is solid with a strong background in sustainability at organizations such as United Nations, McKinsey, A.C. Nielsen.

When volunteering your time, he recommends looking at donating your professional skills in an ongoing way where it is needed most. We’ve got to focus on what we can do and not try to do everything at once, so we don’t burn out. He also says it is useful to think like a marketer, not an activist. By this, Pabon means identifying your stakeholders and working with them to find out what the best long-term solution is. The afterword focuses on the impact of Covid-19 and highlights some positive developments, for example, an unprecedented and significant reduction (although short-term) in greenhouse gas emissions across the globe.

Cutting methane in the EU energy sector- is the new Regulation doing enough to tackle emissions?

By Dr Jasmin Cooper, Research Associate, Sustainable Gas Institute

Since 2020 the EU has been proactive in its approach to tacking methane emissions and in October 2020, the Commission published its Methane Strategy (European Commission, 2020), which outlined the Commission’s goal of cutting emissions by 35-37% by 2030 (relative to 2005) across Member States. In October 2021, the EU co-launched the Global Methane Pledge (European Commission, 2021a) and in December 2021 the European Commission released their framework on how to tackle methane emissions in the energy sector (European Commission, 2021b). This framework outlines the Commissions legislative approach for how cuts to methane emissions are to be made, and how to ensure all Member States achieve the necessary cuts. The Regulation introduced addresses methane from oil and gas and coal but emissions from biomass are not included. It aims to develop a union-wide framework that is homogenous in its approach and standards, with a large focus on transparency in emissions reporting and verification. To cut methane emissions, the Regulation focuses on improving emissions monitoring and reporting, eliminating venting and flaring and establishing minimum standards in leak detection and repair.

Improve accuracy and transparency in emissions reporting

The Regulation outlines the rules on how methane emissions from oil, gas and coal production, storage, transport and distribution within the EU’s borders are to be accurately measured, reported and verified. To ensure operators are implementing the measures set out in the Regulation, each Member State must appoint at least one competent authority to oversee compliance with the Regulation. To verify emissions, independently accredited verified will review the emissions reports submitted by the operators and ensure these follow the requirements set out in the Regulation. The International Methane Emissions Observatory will be given a verification role in emissions data and the information produced will be made available to the public and the Commission.

Actions to cut emissions in the oil and gas sector

The Regulation specifies that upon entry of the Regulation, operators must submit emissions reports for all of their operated and non-operated assets on an annual basis. The first report gives source level emission estimates estimated using emission factors. In subsequent reports, emissions are estimated using direct measurement methods with emissions verification by site-level emissions measurements.

To mitigate methane emissions in oil and gas, the Regulation sets out specific rules for leak detection and repair (LDAR), venting and flaring:

 Leak detection and repair

Within three months of entry of the Regulation, operators need to submit their LDAR programme, which outlines the surveys to be carried out. By month six of entry of the Regulation, all relevant components an operator is responsibility for must have been surveyed. In the surveys, a leak is defined as 500 ppm methane and all components found to emit this amount or more must be repaired or replaced immediately, or as soon as possible (but no later than five days after detection).

Limits to venting and flaring

Under the Regulation, both venting and flare are banned except under specific circumstances e.g. emergencies and malfunctions. Flaring is preferred over venting, but only when re-injection, on site utilisation or entry into a gas market is not possible for non-economic reasons. If an operator wishes to vent or flare gas, they must demonstrate that venting or flaring is necessary and must notify the necessary authorities of any venting and flaring event within 48 hours of the event initiating.

Actions to cut emission in the coal sector

To tackle methane emissions from coal mines, an approach similar to oil and gas is outlined. Specifically, the Regulation focuses on ventilation shafts in underground mines, drainage systems and open coal mines. The Regulation largely focuses on improving emissions measurement and monitoring but also prohibits venting and flaring in mines, except for emergencies. For abandoned coal mines, operators are required to measure and monitor emissions from all abandoned and closed coal mines and to report the emission measured on a yearly basis.

Addressing emissions from outside the EU’s borders

The Regulation has a large focus on transparency in emissions data but states that the Union is committed to working with exporting countries to tackle methane. To improve transparency, countries who supply fossil fuels to EU Member States are required to provide the Member State with data on methane emissions: emissions measurements, reporting and what emission abatement measures are being carried out. To aid in improving transparency in emissions data, exporting countries will be incentivised to sign up to international partnerships and coalitions that aim to cut methane emissions, such as OGMP 2.0. The Commission will assess the submitted information on data quality and detail of monitoring, reporting and emissions verification applied by the exporting country. This data will use used to create a methane transparency database, which will be made available to the public for free.

In addition to this database, the Commission will also establish a global methane monitoring tool, using satellite data and emissions data provided by operators. This tool will also be made available to the public and will be used to provide information and updates on the magnitude, occurrence and location of high methane emitting sources.

Does it go far enough?

Following on from the EU Methane Strategy, it is good to see the Commission lay out clear rules for how methane emissions are to be cut. However, while it does tackle key areas in methane abatement such as emissions data quality and accuracy, there are areas which are lacking and could be improved upon revisions to the Regulation:

  • The Regulation does not outline technologies to be used in emissions monitoring, particularly in LDAR and instead chooses to allow Member States flexibility such that LDAR technologies can be innovated and developed.
  • Emissions from coal outside of mining are not included. Methane can also be emitted during coal waste management, handling, processing and transportation.
  • It does not specify penalties to Member States or operators who fail to meet the obligations outlined, and individual Member States are to lay down their rules on penalties. However, the Regulation does specify that penalties must be effective, proportionate and dissuasive.
  • The Regulation could go further in applying pressure to fossil fuel exporters. It does not specify actions for exporters whose emissions and reporting standards are not on par with what is to be expected.

References

European Commission 2020. COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS on an EU strategy to reduce methane emissions. Brussels, BE: European Commission

European Commission. 2021a. Launch by United States, the European Union, and Partners of the Global Methane Pledge to Keep 1.5C Within Reach [Press Release]. Brussels, BE. Available: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_21_5766.

European Commission 2021b. Proposal for a REGULATION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL on methane emissions reduction in the energy sector and amending Regulation (EU) 2019/942

COM/2021/805 final. Brussels, BE: European Commission

 

Future Heat for Everyone and the Role of Hydrogen

By Ellie Martin

The 2021 Sustainable Gas Institute Annual Lecture was delivered on 3 December and focused on hydrogen’s role in heating. It was contextualized by the challenges to decarbonizing heat, a comparison of hydrogen boilers and heat pumps, the importance of listening to consumers, and the steps that need to be taken to achieve net-zero gas with the help of hydrogen. Content was delivered by the engaging Dr. Angela Needle, who serves as strategy director at Cadent Gas, founder of the Women’s Utility Network, and VP of the Hydrogen UK Trade Association.

Challenges to Gas Alternatives

Given the impending state of climate change and a 300 TWh yearly dependence on natural gas for domestic heating, it is clear that decarbonizing gas is key to achieving net zero emissions for the UK by 2050. Fortunately, a few alternatives to natural gas are inching across the market – namely heat pumps, district heating, and now potentially hydrogen. Current gas boilers are reliable, easily tucked into cupboards and other discrete areas, easy to control and adjust, and generally problem-free. These are some big shoes to fill. What’s more, over £11,000 per home would be needed to cover the energy efficiency improvements, appliance replacements, and electricity and gas network changes necessary for net zero gas. On top of this, homes in the UK are quite literally the worst in Europe when it comes to retaining heat. UK homes lose an average of 3°C over five hours (surpassing all European neighbors), with 61% of EPC ratings falling at or below the D level.

There’s also the difficulty of determining who owns buildings, with the UK moving towards outright ownership. This is a huge challenge to achieving net zero because homeowners are the hardest to reach when it comes to government policy. Diversity in ownership types also presents an issue: solutions will need to be tailored to each property instead of adopting a one-size-fits-all policy.

Dr Angela Needle

Heat Pumps vs. Hydrogen Boilers

An all-hands-on-deck approach will likely be required for natural gas replacements, particularly during the early stages of development when it is unclear which technology will turn out to be the best investment. While hydrogen boilers and heat pumps are often unfairly pitted against each other, there are some key differences between the two that bear mentioning.

One of the most obvious advantages to heat pumps is that they’re currently deployable and proven to work. They’re also highly efficient and thus a good fit for well-insulated homes, and the low energy requirements afforded by these high efficiencies can produce lower running costs. Downsides to this technology include its high upfront cost, supply chain limitations, and the need for consumers to change their behavior.

On the flip side, hydrogen boilers are expected to cost around the same amount as gas boilers and could fit in the same exact spaces, and thus the switch would require less adaptation by consumers. They don’t need to rely on electricity at critical times of the day due to the capacity for storage, and they don’t produce any carbon monoxide. However, hydrogen boilers are not yet commercially available and could temporarily increase gas prices during the initial scale-up stages. Another issue is public perception, namely safety concerns regarding flammability and a general view that these systems are inefficient because energy is required to make hydrogen, and hydrogen is required to make heat.

Since the two options excel in different areas, one technology might be a better fit for a given context. For this reason, it is important to approach deployment from an individual building level in addition to a national level. Resilience network planning will also be key to ensuring constant delivery, even in extreme circumstances like disruptive storms.

The Importance of Consumers

Decarbonizing gas is going to require a highly inclusive approach that considers technical, economic, and consumer perspectives. This last bit is especially important, as consumers tend to be left by the wayside when it comes to big picture solutions. And despite reports that 75% of the public is concerned about climate change, there is still a massive gap between public intent and public action – for example, only 39% of people have reported considering a switch from natural gas heating. Because the effort required to implement new technologies can be a major barrier to uptake, it is crucial for governments to make it easy for consumers to commit to action. A key part of this involves educating consumers with the help of trusted advisors, such as local tradespersons and NGOs, as opposed to energy suppliers or natural gas companies (for whom consumers are typically much less responsive).

Planning the Future

 Cadent is working on a range of projects related to net zero gas, and I was particularly impressed by their implementation approach, which is essentially this: don’t expect people to be comfortable with technologies they have to imagine, show them what’s possible. For example, one project is developing in-home applications for hydrogen: whether an odorant needs to be added, where hydrogen accumulates if it leaks, and how readily combustible it is, among other questions. An exciting product of this work is a hydrogen show home that has cropped up in Gateshead. The house features hydrogen boilers, stoves, and fires that boast a beautiful orange flame (to book a visit, email hydrogenhome@northerngas.co.uk ). Project “H21” is testing the feasibility of 100% hydrogen supply up and down the UK’s current gas network, and another scheme involves blends of hydrogen and natural gas that can provide CO2 emissions reductions of around 6% and could serve as a key stepping-stone in scaling up and encouraging public acceptance of 100% hydrogen in the near future. Residents who participated in this project consistently reported that they couldn’t tell the difference between regular and blended boilers.

So how much hydrogen do we theoretically need? According to predictive models, this number varies from 23 to 182 TWh depending on the interplay between customer acceptance of hydrogen and the adoption of heat pumps. While it’s difficult to plan for a future that has so much uncertainty, the gas sector can prepare by ensuring hydrogen is as safe, well-planned, and easy to implement as possible for when the time comes to deploy. If companies like Cadent continue to innovate in this direction, hydrogen has my full support.

Ellie Martin is a master’s student in Imperial’s Sustainable Energy Futures course. Her undergraduate background is in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Miami, and she’s interested in developing energy technologies through the intersection of engineering and molecular science.

Methane removal from the atmosphere- could it help us reach our climate goals?

By Dr Jasmin Cooper

Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas and because of this, over 100 countries have pledged to cut their emissions of this potent greenhouse gas. All efforts so far to cut methane from the atmosphere have focused on reducing emissions, targeting sectors such as oil and gas, agriculture and waste management. While this is effective in reducing the amount of methane present in the atmosphere, they cannot reduce methane emissions to zero. Also, these actions could be hindered by methane emissions from thawing permafrost caused by current increases in global temperatures. Therefore, there may be the need to remove methane from the atmosphere, but this is an area with little ongoing research and many data gaps.

Unlike carbon dioxide which can be removed directly from the atmosphere, methane removal centres on enhancing the conversion of it into carbon dioxide, or other chemicals. The reasoning for this is because of methane’s strength as a greenhouse gas; 82.5 ± 25.8 times as powerful as carbon dioxide over 20-year time horizon and 29.8 ±11 times as powerful over 100-year time horizon (1). Therefore, by converting it into a less potent greenhouse gas, its global warming impacts are greatly reduced.

The methods which can be used to remove methane focus on increasing the size of existing methane sinks (natural systems which remove it from the atmosphere) or other ways of converting it into carbon dioxide and other chemicals:

Enhancing methane sinks

Physical

The main sink for methane is the reaction with hydroxyl (OH) radicals in the atmosphere, which coverts it into carbon dioxide. Therefore, methods of increasing the amount of OH radicals in the atmosphere would enhance the rate of methane removal. Iron-salts have been found to enhance OH radical formation from sea water by mimicking the reaction of mineral dust (2). By applying iron-salts to sea water, the formation of OH radical and Cl is enhanced, both of which react with methane.

Biological

The other sink for methane is microbes in the soil, which contain enzymes that can oxidise methane into carbon dioxide (3, 4). By increasing the concentration of these microbes in the soil or using them in equipment designed to remove methane from air e.g. biotrickling filtration (3), the concentration of methane in the atmosphere can be reduced.

Direct oxidation and conversion into other chemicals

Catalysts

Methane can be converted into carbon dioxide without OH radicals. Methane can react with oxygen in the presence of a catalyst, in a reaction similar to combustion, to produce water and carbon dioxide. Many catalysts can be used including photocatalysts, metal catalysts with zeolites and porous polymer networks (3). These are used in air contactors, like those used in direct air capture for carbon dioxide removal, where air flows through the materials containing the catalyst. Methane can also be oxidised to form methanol (3). It is also possible to directly converted methane into chemicals such as ethane and ethylene in the presence of a catalyst (5) and platinum-based catalysts have been found to be effective for this.

Barriers to methane removal

While it is possible to remove methane from the atmosphere, its direct removal is an area with little ongoing research. Reasons for this are that the concentration of methane in the atmosphere is much lower than carbon dioxide (~200 times lower; 1.88 ppm methane versus 410 ppm carbon dioxide). Therefore, it is more energy intensive to remove methane from the atmosphere because large volumes of air need to be processed to remove significant amounts of methane. Other reasons for why little scientific interest have been placed on methane removal is that it is currently much more effective to reduce the concentration of methane in the atmosphere by emissions abatement e.g., reducing venting and flaring in oil and gas or waste management practices in agriculture.

Could it help us reach our climate goals?

Overall, methane removal from the atmosphere could play a role in meeting future climate targets but this is dependent on how successful methane emission reduction initiatives are, as well as other decarbonisation strategies e.g. phasing out fossil fuels and ramping up renewable electricity. Methane removal is not a substitute for methane emissions abatement but could be complimentary to it if further sharper and deeper cuts to methane are needed to reach Paris Agreement goals. If net-zero pledges are successful and more initiatives like the Global Methane Pledge Methane are established, then methane removal is unlikely to play a role in future decarbonisation strategies.

References

  1. IPCC. AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Geneva, CH: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); 2021.
  2. Oeste FD, de Richter R, Ming T, Caillol S. Climate engineering by mimicking natural dust climate control: the iron salt aerosol method. Earth Syst Dynam. 2017;8(1):1-54.
  3. Jackson RB, Abernethy S, Canadell JG, Cargnello M, Davis SJ, Féron S, et al. Atmospheric methane removal: a research agenda. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. 2021;379(2210):20200454.
  4. Lawton TJ, Rosenzweig AC. Methane-Oxidizing Enzymes: An Upstream Problem in Biological Gas-to-Liquids Conversion. Journal of the American Chemical Society. 2016;138(30):9327-40.
  5. Li Z, Xiao Y, Chowdhury PR, Wu Z, Ma T, Chen JZ, et al. Direct methane activation by atomically thin platinum nanolayers on two-dimensional metal carbides. Nature Catalysis. 2021;4(10):882-91.

 

 

 

Will the global methane pledge make an impact in meeting climate goals?

By Luke Dubey

In the first week of COP26 a ground-breaking methane pledge was announced by the US and the EU. Very quickly over 100 countries, representing 70% of the global GDP and almost 50% of anthropogenic methane emissions had signed up. The pledge agrees to cut methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030 compared to 2020 levels. It is estimated that delivering on the pledge would reduce warming by at least 0.2°C by 2050. So how is this going to be achieved, will it work, and why are over half of the emissions not covered?

Each country that has signed the pledge can decide how to reduce its emissions. This could be through new technology, regulations, switching fuels or changing practices. Due to the completely different emission profiles of each country, emissions reductions will take a completely different form. For example, the EU is a large consumer of gas, but a low producer compared to the US which has very high gas production. The strategies in place for one country will be very different to another. Due to how recently the pledge was announced, most countries do not have a detailed outline of how they plan to reduce their emissions. But these will be required very rapidly as 8 years is a short time for such a large emission reductions.

Thus far, only the US has a detailed national action plan on how to cut emissions within their borders. The US action plan was published in November 2021 following the announcement of the pledge at COP26 by President Joe Biden, and outlined their strategy to cut emissions. The action plan has considerable focus on the oil and gas sector, aiming to reduce emissions from sources covered by the action plan by 75%. This includes pipelines which will be covered by a new leak detection and repair rule which would establish standards to detect and eliminate leaks. Plugging wells, reducing flaring and venting and improving standards for new and existing oil and gas sources are also included. The action plan, should it be successful, will provide a playbook for reducing oil and gas sector emissions. Other emission sources are also covered in the action plan. For landfill emissions, a reduction in emissions via regulations and a drive to reduce the quantity of food in landfills, with the goal of 70% of emission captured from landfill. The agriculture sector is tackled via new technologies such as anaerobic methane digestors. The action plan has shown the 30% reduction can be achieved by slashing emissions from the lowest hanging fruit, in the USA’s case oil and gas and landfills, while providing jobs. This will allow the harder to abate sectors to survive while the technology to reduce their emissions becomes less expensive and more feasible to implement.

If the US has shown (in theory) how drastic emission reduction can be achieved, while also providing co-benefits to the economy, why have all countries not signed up? This is the main failing of the pledge. The 30% emission reduction, while significant enough to aid us on the path to 1.5°C (if all countries signed up) was a reduction too big for some of the world’s largest emitters such as China, Russia and India. Their omission is a huge blow to the 1.5°C target where methane emissions need to decrease by 25 – 53% for it to be achieved. Moreover, the 30% reduction in many countries is not enough to meet the IEA’s net zero pathway which sees a 75% methane reduction in energy use. So, it would seem that the pledge, by not being adopted by some of the largest emitters, will not be enough to meet Paris goals. However, should the signatories demonstrate that emissions can be reduced, while implementing a methane tax price (some in the US have suggested $1800/ton) then these countries, through purely economics may be persuaded to reduce emissions. Getting these high emitting countries onboard will be key to the long-term success of the pledge and will have a large impact in whether climate goals can be met.

Overall, the methane pledge must be seen as a positive as it is the first large scale attempt at tackling this potent greenhouse gas globally. The omission of many large emitters is a great loss but must be placed in the context of many unwilling participants at COP26. Should the reductions in emissions from the signatories be successful it will pave the way for other countries to join. This in turn will go a great way in meeting climate goals.

Does gas hold a future with the Paris climate targets?

FaceLeonie Marie Emilie Orhan is a student on the MSc Sustainable Energy Futures course at Imperial College. She previously did her undergraduate at the University of Warwick in Mechanical Engineering. Leonie wrote a summary blog post about the latest white paper, ‘Best uses of natural gas within climate targets’ and launch event.

The sixth white paper from the Sustainable Gas Institute ‘Best uses of natural gas within climate targets’ focuses on the future uses of natural gas within the 1.5°C Paris climate targets for both 2050 and 2100. Through the analysis of different gas use scenarios (and energy mixes) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it highlights the uncertainties in the future use of natural gas and highlights the potentials of Carbon Capturing and Storage (CCS) and of hydrogen in decarbonisation. It also focuses on the impact policies have on the development and growth of these industries through investment attractivity.

The presentation (watch the launch video) was hosted by the author, Dr Jamie Speirs, a Research Fellow at the Sustainable Gas Institute and the Centre for Environmental Policy, and co-authors, Luke Dubey, a Research Assistant at the Sustainable Gas Institute, and Naveed Tariq, a PhD Researcher from the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London.

Gas use differs across regions

It is evident that natural gas usage must be reduced not only to attain the 1.5°C targets, but also to conserve fossil fuel reserves for applications which do not yet have viable substitutions. A large majority of the scenarios agree with this, with large variations in different regions. The report shows that Europe’s consumption is set to drop rapidly through substitutions to greener solutions, while in Asia, natural gas would increase until 2050 (before decreasing) due to a growing middle class which relies on affordable energies. I found that highlighting these differences brought light to the individuality of solutions required if they are to consider not only the environmental perspective, but also the social and economic facets.
The importance of carbon capture and storage

 

Natural gas use was also shown to decrease significantly faster without carbon capture and storage (CCS) than with CCS. This demonstrates that to meet the 1.5°C targets while allowing a more significant transition period to other more sustainable energies, CCS must develop quickly. However, CCS development is controlled by economic incentives and policies as these are needed to be in place to draw in investments to enable the growth of the CCS industry.

Natural gas and hydrogen

In sectors for which decarbonisation is more difficult, such as domestic heating or transport, hydrogen could provide a substitute for the use of natural gas. Currently, hydrogen can be separated into blue and green hydrogen: blue hydrogen is produced using natural gas and green hydrogen using renewable energies. Due to the high costs of green hydrogen production, blue hydrogen is currently more favourable to the economy. Although its production does contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, its growth is necessary to pave the way for green hydrogen. This is due to the infrastructure needs of hydrogen production, storage, and distribution.

The UK government has stated in its recent Hydrogen strategy that both CCS and hydrogen will be essential to decarbonisations with notable milestones based on an increase in hydrogen production (1GW by 2025 and 5GW by 2030), an increase in CCUS clusters (2 by 2025 and 4 by 2030) and hydrogen heating and hydrogen town trials in 2025 and 2030. This shows a\strong interest from the government in these economies, as the UK seeks to transition quickly to enable a strong economic growth.

The White Paper points out that the scenarios analysed are based on the current knowledge of greenhouse gas emissions, which lacks an understanding of methane global warming potentials and may be affected by other factors in the future. This points out the need for a regular analysis and updated predictions and shows that there could be discrepancies between the scenarios presented and the future.

One of the main points I feel was conveyed in the report and presentation was the lack of policies to incentivise the growth of CCS and hydrogen production, which have the potential to play large roles in reaching the 1.5°C targets. Policies would need to centre around the development of the infrastructures required, the realignment market regulations to meet the demands of CCS and hydrogen, and agreements for international trade of hydrogen.The differences in hydrogen demand depending on how strong policies were really illustrated these points, with few and weak policies resulting in a demand over three times smaller than for strong ones, while with policies whose strengths and numbers are at a theoretical maximum, the demand came close to twice that of strong policies.

Expert views on the report

Dr Susana Moreira, a Senior Gas Specialist at The World Bank, offered a commentary which outlined the importance of investing in more electricity grids to cope with the demand and ease the changes in economy required to pave the way to a net zero future. Another pertinent point was that of connecting everyone to the grid and the adjustment that gas producing countries would have to make, not only to their electricity structures, but also to their economies. The impact of hydrogen production to the environment and communities was also pointed out. Overall, her commentary brought light on economic, social, and environmental issues which are key factors in the consideration of a net zero future.

Martin Lambert, a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, focused his commentary on emphasising the need of investments and policies required to do so.

Overall, the paper shows that to meet the 1.5°C targets, CCS and hydrogen must benefit from policies to encourage investments and regulations to direct the market as meeting the targets requires reliance on CCS and hydrogen. I feel more emphasis should have been placed on the idea that although the population is projected to increase to over 10 billion by 2100 (UN Population Facts, December 2019) natural gas usage is predicted to decline.