What role for natural gas in the energy transition?

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Published on 28/11/2018

A study by France Strategie, September 2018

Gas occupies an important place in the French energy transition already implemented: 19% of final energy, 23% for electricity. It has mainly replaced coal and fuel oil, which is undeniably a step forward, but it still represents 20% of our carbon dioxide emissions, so it’s not as “green” as some claim.

France-Strategie, heir to the Planning Commission and advisor to the Prime Minister, is studying the question of natural gas use from the perspective of a zero-carbon France. Maintaining the existing gas distribution network and storage facilities would require a minimum of 330TWh, or two-thirds of the current 450TWh volumes.

If the substitution of gas for coal in electricity production in America and England has contributed to emissions reductions, the situation is quite different in France, where the electricity production mix is already very low-carbon, with a small number of coal-fired power plants in operation until 2022 and a few remaining gas-fired power plants (respectively 1.8% and 7.7% of electricity production).

As for the prospects for green gas, France Strategie notes that today its cost would be 3 or 4 times higher than for imported gas. The gasification of available biomass resources has about half the energy efficiency compared to their use in heating networks.

The cost of methane produced by “power to gas” projects comes to 8000 €/MWh, i.e. 500 times the market price. This is beyond the scope of optimization or technological progress measures in the short and medium term.

Harvesting quantities of wood for energy (possibly leading to a corresponding increase in timber consumption) could decrease the carbon stored in the forest. In the scenarios examined by the Institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA) and the Institut national de l’information géographique et forestière (IGN) in June 2017 for the Ministry of Agriculture, the difference in carbon storage between much higher forest exploitation (corresponding for example to a 100% renewable gas scenario and the development of pyro-gasification) and an opposite scenario of forest area expansion coupled with lower rates of harvesting, results in several dozen MtCO2eq/year in favor of the latter scenario. By way of comparison, natural gas consumption in France accounts for emissions of about 88 MtCO2/year.

In conclusion, France Strategie calls for a serious debate on the future of green gas, taking these facts into account, and recommends reconsidering the 2012 energy regulations promoting the use of gas, rather than electricity, in new housing. CO2 emissions, it argues, should be the main criterion, in line with the country’s declared priority of climate issues.