How Power and Gas Sector Coupling can help European Union’s Zero-Carbon Quest ?
Updated: Mar 15, 2021
European Commission has made it loud and clear to the rest of the world about their ambitious goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050. And on the way towards net-zero emissions future, EU is actively identifying and implementing all of the available options.
Achieving EU’s ambitious goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050 requires deeper carbon emission cuts in the short term. One of the quickest ways of doing that could be exploiting the available sources of energy to the fullest in order to reduce emissions as quickly as possible across all sectors of the economy.
According to BloombergNEF, a research company, direct and indirect electrification of transport, buildings and industry could deliver a 60% reduction in carbon emissions across Europe by 2050. This is important piece of information because it shows that EU can achieve massive reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 by only figuring out a way to directly or indirectly electrify transport, buildings and industry sectors with renewables technologies.
The good news is that EU already have well developed and mature clean renewables technologies (i.e. solar PV, onshore wind, offshore wind etc.) that are considered by many the most efficient and competitive sources for the generation of clean electricity at the moment. But the problem is that electricity makes up only a quarter of EU’s total energy consumption. It is because most of the EU’s energy intensive sectors (i.e. heating, transportation, building, some heavy industry, aviation, shipping, agriculture etc.) are still not ready to get electrified directly or indirectly cost effectively by these renewable technologies (i.e. solar PV, onshore wind, offshore wind etc.) and still get their energy from fossil fuels. This is, because some of these sectors cannot be electrified directly with these renewable technologies (i.e. solar PV, onshore wind, offshore wind etc.) but there is also the electricity storage problem that these renewable technologies need to address before large scale electrification across different sectors in the EU. Although battery storage technologies have improved a lot but still none of these systems can store large amounts of electricity at reasonable costs or efficiencies.
I think that linking together electricity and gas networks could be a good way to decarbonise sectors such as transport, buildings, industry and even agriculture or in simple words power and gas sector coupling. Because I think that this sector coupling idea solves both the obstacles (electricity storage and inability of direct electrification of some sectors) coming in the way of renewables technologies in the electrification of transport, buildings and industry sectors in the EU.
In simple words, by linking together electricity and gas networks, I mean that as renewables are becoming more efficient sources of producing dirt cheap clean electricity it could be a good idea to use that excess renewable power from wind and solar to produce low-carbon fuels like hydrogen, biomethane, as these low-carbon gases can easily be stored in the existing gas infrastructure, and used for heavy-duty transport and energy-intensive industries like steel and cement.
Most suited example for that case would be the use of excess electricity produced by offshore wind farms, which can be transformed into hydrogen via electrolysis and subsequently stored in the gas network that can either be used to fuel vehicles or it could be turned back into electricity or heat in times of little sun and wind.
Although the EU have a lot to gain from joining forces of electricity and gas networks, but doing so will require massive investments in clean power generation and structural changes to EU energy market rules.
Benefits of linking Electricity and gas networks together:
Firstly, it can help in the acceleration of the decarbonisation of transport, buildings and industry sectors that are difficult to decarbonise, because the rise of cheap wind and solar power have made it “easier for electricity to decarbonise” sectors like heating, buildings, industry and even agriculture.
Secondly, linking together electricity and gas networks helps prevent “oversized infrastructure” growth in power networks, which the European Commission said will form the backbone of Europe’s low-carbon energy system by 2050.
Thirdly, combining the electricity and gas infrastructure could mean more resilient energy system and would really add to EU’s security of energy supply.
Challenges – getting the sector coupling right:
Successful power and gas sector coupling would require massive investments in clean power generation and structural changes to EU energy market rules.
Digitalisation of numerous processes would be needed to better synchronise supply and demand across different sectors.
Several practical and legal questions must be answered for getting the integration right and connecting the sectors.
I personally think, EU already have required clean renewables technologies and other infrastructures ready for electrifying and decarbonizing the transport, buildings and industry sectors in order to achieve massive reduction in carbon emissions but only lacking effectively linking the various components of the energy system together.
But first things first, the first priority for Europe should be to decarbonise electricity, by growing the share of renewables, which currently represent only 32.3% of total power production in Europe.
Then the next step for Europe should be to use that excess renewable power from wind and solar for the electrification of the whole economy. And the good news is that it is possible for the EU to electrify almost 80% of EU’s total energy consumption, including transport and heating.
Therefore, so-called “sector coupling” of gas and electricity networks could make a big contribution to the EU’s objective of becoming the first climate-neutral continent in the world by mid-century.
Finally, according to Costas Stamatis, a policy officer at the Commission’s energy directorate, “Sector coupling is not just a matter of electrification but more importantly how the sectors can work together and interact with each other” in order to contribute to a more efficient and cost-effective energy system of the future.