Gas with a Difference

There are no simple solutions to transforming the world’s energy systems.
This article appeared in Vol. 16, No. 6 - 2019


Gas With a Difference

Fuel cell demonstrating a device that converts chemical potential energy into electrical energy. © Igor Serdiuk/ Imagine using excess offshore wind energy to manufacture hydrogen on disused gas platforms. Fantasy? What about tapping into an existing pipeline infrastructure to get the hydrogen back to gas terminals before distributing the resulting electricity to homes and businesses? The reality as 2019 draws to a close is that plenty of blue-sky thinking is being employed by oil and gas companies who seek to diversify and update their offering.

As discussed in the last issue, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is one option in a developed world search for cleaner energy. You can keep your gas, even your coal, runs the thinking, but CCS – literally the trapping of carbon dioxide at the point of combustion – may well have to be part of the equation. The problem is, as we have considered, CCS is expensive and there’s no sign that the demand for fossil fuels is going to nosedive anytime soon.

In its World Energy Outlook 2019, the IEA sounds a note of optimism. For the moment at least there are calmer markets despite an uncertain geopolitical outlook and well-supplied inventories. The upshot, notes IEA, is a more bullish outlook for 2020 and a sharp rebound in refinery activity. Business as usual?

Not quite. As the big investment funds consider their options, oil and gas majors must continue to give every indication that transition to cleaner energy is uppermost in their minds. By the beginning of 2019, almost 1,000 institutions with $6.2 trillion in assets had committed to jettison fossil fuels, according to the consultancy Arabella Advisors. Even in Norway, where hydrocarbons are so important to finance, the country’s $1.1 trillion sovereign wealth fund is selling stakes in oil and gas explorers.

Back to hydrogen, the ultimate clean fuel given that the residue from burning it is water. If we accept that natural gas is going to be around and acceptable even longer than oil, then small wonder that certain oil majors are looking at how this processed bi-product of natural gas could be mixed with the original for a less polluting fuel. Mind you, if, as the IEA maintains, demand for energy keeps growing and demand for fossil fuels doesn’t even flatten out until the 2040s, then there is still time to get the technology right.

As Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director, notes, “What comes through with crystal clarity in this year’s World Energy Outlook is there is no single or simple solution to transforming global energy systems.” Indeed.


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