In an interview, Matthias Peter, Head of Sales at WINGAS, explains why gas is indispensable in the context of the energy transition and will continue to make an even more active contribution to achieving climate targets in the future with low-emission solutions.
Natural gas is a fossil fuel. What potential does natural gas have for efficient climate protection?
Matthias Peter: There are various aspects to the path towards a climate-friendly or climate-neutral energy landscape. For a successful energy transition, the framework of security of supply, affordability and environmental compatibility must be taken into account. As a flexible and climate-friendly energy source, natural gas remains indispensable for this task. As a comparatively low-carbon energy source, natural gas can contribute to immediate success in reducing emissions in all sectors like no other fossil energy source can. If we take the heating sector as an example, 18 million tonnes of CO2 per year could be avoided by replacing oil heating with gas heating in households alone - that is around 40 per cent of what still needs to be saved in the building sector by 2030. Looking at electricity generation alone, the immediate switch from coal to natural gas could bring CO2 emission reductions of over 50 per cent.
Some climate protection groups want a complete phase-out of fossil fuels, and as soon as possible. How does your industry respond to this demand?
Matthias Peter: I agree that we need to hurry up to reduce emissions. However, we need to differentiate between decarbonisation and defossilisation. According to the IPCC, decarbonisation means that we no longer release carbon into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. Decarbonisation is the key to climate protection!
How this goal can be achieved and whether fossil fuels also play a role here is a completely different question. Often the goal of decarbonisation is equated with the demand to achieve this by way of an energy supply based entirely on renewable energies. This view does not take into account the innovative use of fossil raw materials without the emission of CO2. Natural gas as a fossil fuel opens the way to the fastest and most economical decarbonisation. Even if decarbonisation is given first priority, security of supply and affordability must not be left out. In pursuit of this goal, competition between systems must not be prevented. Politics must define the goal, but not the way to get there!
In the summer, the German government adopted the National Hydrogen Strategy. What role will hydrogen play in the energy landscape of the future?
Matthias Peter: Renewable energy primarily comes in the form of electricity. Hydrogen can drive climate protection in areas that can otherwise only be electrified at great expense. This applies in particular to the basic materials and chemical industries, as well as to parts of the mobility sector or in the heating market. In addition to electricity, the German government has identified hydrogen as a storable energy carrier for a climate-friendly long-term energy supply and has documented this in its hydrogen strategy. In doing so, it has de facto abandoned the one-sided focus on an electricity turnaround, thus signalling that, in addition to climate protection, aspects such as security of supply and affordability also play an important role.
What is wrong with relying solely on green hydrogen?
Matthias Peter: The potential for renewable energies in Germany and Europe, and thus for the availability of "green hydrogen", is limited. They will not be enough for the decarbonisation of Europe. The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI), for example, assumes that the theoretical potential for renewable energies in Germany (up to 1,100 TWh per year) and the EU (approx. 15,000 TWh per year) will hardly be sufficient to cover demand cost-effectively with regard to aspects of availability, economic viability and acceptance.
This is because, according to estimates from the study "Climate Neutral Germany", Germany is expected to have a primary energy demand of approx. 2,000 TWh in 2040. This means that the final energy demand (Germany approx. 1,700 TWh, EU28 approx. 9,000 TWh) is strongly dependent on the demand for hydrogen: Since the renewable energies from wind and sun are available in the form of electric power, this must first be converted into hydrogen - which in turn is associated with losses of about 20 per cent.
How can an economic hydrogen economy become a reality in this context?
Matthias Peter: We need other sources for the production of climate-neutral hydrogen - for example blue or turquoise hydrogen produced from natural gas - mind you, without greenhouse gas emissions! The production of hydrogen from natural gas with the help of steam reforming and subsequent CO2 storage - the so-called "blue" hydrogen - has been tested in practice and can technically be made available in large quantities.
Innovative methane pyrolysis also offers great potential to secure the large energy demand in industry, transport or the heating market at competitive prices. Competition between hydrogen technologies is necessary here to ensure the best prices and thus a rapid market ramp-up. In addition to power-to-gas, other processes must be promoted that can produce CO2-neutral hydrogen at low cost. Moreover, even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states in its latest report that we do not have time to wait for the expansion of renewable energies. We must now use all available technologies - and the IPCC explicitly mentions CO2 sequestration, i.e. the capture and storage of CO2 from industrial processes.
What is your customers' stance on the National Hydrogen Strategy?
Matthias Peter: Our industrial customers see the use of hydrogen as a way to achieve climate protection goals while at the same time maintaining industrial value creation. As many of these customers operate internationally, competitiveness also plays an essential role. The openness of hydrogen technology and colours plays a central role, especially in the market ramp-up. The switch to much more renewable energy brings with it a sharp increase in electricity demand. However, renewable electricity is far from sufficient to decarbonise our entire energy system - including via hydrogen from electrolysis.
Hydrogen from fossil sources - produced without CO2 emissions, mind you - will help us to enable our customers to change and switch raw materials. These opportunities should be supported. Steel companies could decarbonise their production processes by up to 95 per cent or even completely if they used hydrogen instead of coking coal. Hydrogen is extremely important for the chemical industry. According to the German Chemical Industry Association, the demand for hydrogen is expected to increase sixfold by 2050 in order to achieve the goal of decarbonisation in the German basic chemicals industry. But where should these enormous quantities of hydrogen come from and how much should it cost? A cost-effective, emission-free hydrogen supply is necessary here. Decarbonisation will move ahead most quickly if we start relying on blue and turquoise hydrogen today.