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What role will gas network operators play in the future net zero landscape?

With Governments and policy makers across Europe ramping up ambitions for Net Zero and accelerating their plans to get there, this is and will increasingly lead to more deployment of renewable electricity generation, electrification of heat and transport, and increased energy efficiency.  It is also very clear that natural gas will be playing a smaller role in the future energy system than it does today.

But what does this mean for the role of gas network operators in the future energy system?  Across the research we do at Delta-EE helping gas and electricity network operators, we see a number of significant roles that gas network operators in particular could play, including:

  1. Accelerating the decarbonisation of gas – by investing in and supporting the increased share of biomethane and hydrogen in the gas network. Today, biomethane plants are already connecting to and injecting biomethane into the gas networks, with growing demand from sites wanting to connect to the gas network. Large scale hydrogen deployment will depend on gas network operators upgrading existing infrastructure, deploying new infrastructure, and modifying their operations – requiring significant investments.  Gas networks operators are already supporting and facilitating the deployment of and R&D in biomethane and hydrogen – and will continue to do so.
  1. Supporting system flexibility, enabling more renewable generation to connect. Flexible gas fired generation, typically connected to gas distribution networks, can be and is being used (alongside batteries, demand side response and other larger generators) to quickly respond to the flexibility needs of the electricity system. The need for flexibility is driven by increased renewables penetration and increasing electricity demand, and as larger central generation plant come offline, the need for more distributed flexibility will only grow. The gas network is also a large and cost-effective way of storage huge volumes of energy.
  2. Decarbonisation of Heat in buildings – in ‘hard to heat’ buildings or buildings in areas that may be challenging to electrify. New higher efficiency gas appliances (e.g. gas heat pumps), hydrogen heating systems and hybrid (heat pump plus gas boiler) heating systems could offer a low or zero carbon heating solution for buildings that are not be ideally suited to a fully electric heating system. Hybrid heating systems have the added benefit of being able to be operated flexibly in response to the needs to the electricity system (e.g. by running the heat pump only when excess renewable generation is available, or by run gas boiler when electricity system is constrained (e.g. lots of EV charging, short fall in renewables). This was explored in the FREEDOM project.
  1. Decarbonisation of industry and transport. Hydrogen will be an important solution for decarbonising industries that need large amounts of high temperature heat (such as chemicals). Hydrogen will also be important for several transport segments (heavy goods vehicles, shipping, aviation) where electrification is more of a challenge.  This will need gas networks to be able to support and deliver this hydrogen to them.

It is a clear that there is a valuable and important role that gas network operators can play in the future energy system. However, the evolving policy landscape across Europe towards natural gas presents big uncertainties to gas network operators – making investment decisions in infrastructure today challenging to make.  And to fulfil the roles above will require investment, and in some cases, very large investments to be made by gas network operators as well as changes to be made in the ways in which they operate their networks.

While clarity on the policy position around gas is crystalising, we are seeing gas network operators supporting research, trials, innovation and investing in getting their networks to be net zero ready.

We will be exploring this topic more in our consultancy work and our new distribution network service.

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