National Grid Eyes Decarbonizing Gas, Using Hydrogen: Q&A

By Bryony Collins, Bloomberg New Energy Finance editorial team. This article first appeared on the Bloomberg Terminal and is available to BNEF clients on the web.

National Grid Plc is looking at ways to decarbonize gas used for heating and transport in the U.K., as it sees the fuel continuing to play an important role “during peak demand periods” even in its projections that see lower overall gas consumption in the future.

Running hydrogen gas through plastic pipes at the distribution level is one possibility anticipated by the gas and electricity distribution company, Nicola Pitts, head of market change for gas at National Grid, told BNEF in an interview. Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel as it emits only water when burned, in contrast to natural gas, which produces carbon dioxide as well as some nitrogen oxides.

The utility aims to “provide a more flexible approach to gas provision”, said Pitts. It wants to allow commercial users to access compressed natural gas for their lorries and fleets via smaller, more distributed connections to the gas distribution system across the U.K. National Grid would look “to work with a partner who would provide a [gas charging] facility to commercial gas users operating off our network”, said Pitts. Another option would be to provide a “low-cost connection” to rural communities to allow farmers to connect into the transmission network at a local level, she said.

“Gas consumption will start to increase” in the heavier transport sector as fleet owners seek to reduce emissions, but are unable to electrify their vehicles due to their weight, said Pitts. National Grid sees an opportunity to increase its footprint in this area by partnering with existing fuel station providers, and increasing accessibility to its gas distribution network.

Nicola Pitts spoke with BNEF in an interview on March 7 at National Grid’s London headquarters.

BNEF: What role do you see for gas in the transition to a low-carbon world?
Pitts: Today, gas plays a significant role in our energy mix. Around three times more energy comes from gas than it does electricity [in the U.K.]. About 8 out of 10 of us have gas in our homes – either for heating or for cooking.

However, in 2050, it won’t be possible to have unabated natural gas and certainly not to the extent that we use it now. In our last Future of Energy Scenario [studies made by National Grid] we tried to test the envelope of the highest and lowest gas demands that would still meet our 2050 target, and in all of those gas does play a role, although there is a divergence in how much that will be.

The other thing that our Future of Gas work has brought forward is the potential role of decarbonized gas. We are looking at how to decarbonize the gas going into people’s homes, so they don’t necessarily need to change their heating source. And also looked at the role of gas in transport, particularly for heavier vehicles or public vehicles.

There’s a lot of work going on looking at hydrogen. Either you convert natural gas into low-carbon hydrogen, or you [convert excess renewable energy into a hydrogen gas]. One of the big things is how would we replace natural gas as our peak heating fuel. As even in our lowest future gas sensitivity we would still be using gas to provide heating during peak demand periods.

Q: How have you been conducting work around using hydrogen to provide lower-carbon heating for the U.K.?
A: We’ve been conducting a public stakeholder engagement process. There’s a lot of work going on in academia – individual companies and organizations are looking at the technology. We’re trying to provide a lens of how to join these things together. What are the roles that National Grid may need to play in terms of looking at the markets and our own networks? How do we support these new technologies in terms of getting them onto the grid and to market?

So it’ll probably spark us to work with policy-makers and regulators to look at how we actually take that forward.

Q: What are the obstacles to rolling out hydrogen through your network?
A: The first big step is that we need to experiment with the technology, work out its capabilities and how to commercialize that. And we will also be looking at the networks and market side of that.
It’s expected that hydrogen gas could run at the distribution level. They’ve been replacing old iron mains with plastic pipe, which would be capable of transporting both natural gas and hydrogen, plus a range of bio-gases as well.

We need to do some work on our own infrastructure, to work out whether we can innovate our infrastructure to be able to transport pure hydrogen.

And if the government’s support for carbon capture and storage takes off… then we may need to re-purpose some of our pipes to carry carbon.

Q: How do you see the role of gas and hydrogen being used for transport?
A: Electrifying vehicles is not really suitable for the heavier transport market. Italy and Germany are way ahead of us in terms of [using] compressed natural gas in heavy goods vehicles. Public policy is prompting more of that now. Because if you move away from diesel, you get a benefit in terms of lower nitrogen oxide and better air quality. So we do think that’s an area where gas consumption will start to increase.

As part of our work we’ve been thinking about how we can facilitate connections to our network. Because there’s a confluence between our network and some major trunk roads. So we are looking at helping people access a smaller connection off our system.

Q: So National Grid would almost consider operating as a fuel station operator, providing compressed natural gas and even hydrogen in the future?
A: Precisely. Hydrogen in the future. Already, we are looking to provide LNG filling services to lorries and fleets at our Grain LNG facility in Kent, that’s part of the National Grid Group. There’s a big trend in other parts of the world to use LNG for shipping. This is part of the different roles that gas might be playing in the future.

We could probably look to work with a partner who would provide a [gas charging] facility to commercial gas users operating off our network.

We’ve also been working on a project which is a low-cost connection that could be ordered [and would allow smaller commercial gas users to off-take gas to charge vehicles or other uses]. For example, a number of rural communities [in the U.K.] don’t have a natural gas distribution system, but a farmer may well have a gas transmission pipe going under their land and they might want to produce bio-gases and feed it into the transmission network. Currently they have to connect at the distribution level.

So we’re looking at how we can provide a more flexible approach to gas provision, so that people can access it via smaller connections rather than a big gas terminal.

National Grid launched its first LNG refilling facility for trucks at its Isle of Grain terminal in Kent last November. Road tankers can load LNG in bulk at the facility and transport it to filling stations, and industrial and commercial markets throughout the U.K. and Europe.

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