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The role of natural gas in the energy transition

What is climate neutrality

The concept of "climate neutrality" is becoming more and more central at every level of our society: consumers, producers, policy makers, there are more and more people who show interest in issues related to environmental sustainability, aligned with what has been established by international protocols, and climate neutrality plays a leading role in this panorama.

Working towards climate neutrality means making choices and implementing processes aimed at reducing carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as much as possible, and at compensating for any emissions that cannot be eliminated through alternative climate protection measures. A process, therefore, can be defined as "climate neutral" if it does not cause emissions of carbon dioxide and harmful greenhouse gases, or if the amount of these gases that is inevitably produced is then compensated by reducing emissions in other areas.

When it comes to climate neutrality, in fact, it is essential to remember that all processes concerning climate protection are by their nature global processes: the reduction of emissions must take place at every level and in every part of the planet, because - unlike what happens, for example, with atmospheric pollution, which generally remains localized in the area where it is produced - the place where the greenhouse gases are physically released into the atmosphere has no importance, as they generate their poisonous effect indiscriminately on the Earth as a whole.

For this reason, the Kyoto Protocol provides for the so-called Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which establishes that the place where the emissions limitation interventions are carried out does not count, as long as they are completed. If a nation promotes interventions aimed at reducing emissions produced in a foreign country (for example, a developing country) the impact is the same as if the reduction in emissions concerned the nation itself, and therefore contributes to the achievement of the objectives established by the protocol: the objective, in short, is to obtain a global reduction in emissions, because only in this way will the interventions made translate into real benefits.

This starting point must always be taken into consideration when reflecting on the environmental impact of production and - in general - on sustainability, and it is for this reason that sustainability goals are set internationally. In fact, a limited intervention in space would not lead to the desired results, which can only be achieved if all countries operate jointly.

The climate neutrality goals for 2050

The European Union, through the so-called European Green Deal, has undertaken to implement a series of strategic initiatives aimed at achieving the goal of climate neutrality by 2050, with an intermediate goal set in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 55% compared to 1990 values by 2030. The goal is therefore to become the first continent with zero climate impact, and then continue in the direction traced, aiming to achieve negative emissions from 2050 onwards.

To achieve this result, individual actions and interventions are obviously not enough, but it is necessary to operate in a structural and joint way, involving the world of industry, agriculture, the production chain and energy transport and so on.

The Green Deal aims to involve all production sectors and all EU countries, without neglecting any territory, to promote a more responsible use of resources and achieve climate neutrality, ensuring that by 2050 net emissions are no longer generated of greenhouse gases.

The positive effects that can derive from these actions are innumerable, and among them we can mention:

Le ricadute positive che potranno derivare da queste azioni sono innumerevoli, e tra esse possiamo citare:

  • reduction of energy consumption by improving the energy efficiency of buildings;
  • cleaner energy production and cutting-edge clean technological innovation;
  • increase in the lifespan of products and incentives for repair, recycling and reuse;
  • availability of clean air and water;
  • protection of biodiversity;
  • transformation of the industry in the direction of greater competitiveness and resilience on a global level.

Which energy sources to prefer to achieve climate neutrality?

Once the objectives to be achieved have been defined, it remains to be established which are the most convenient energy sources to use in order to achieve the result of climate neutrality. The answer to this question is not simple, and opens the way to a wide debate in which positions that are often difficult to reconcile are confronted.

We believe that, instead of focusing on the question "which is the best energy source?", i is more useful and more pragmatic to ask ourselves what is the best formula for integrating the different energy sources at our disposal and obtaining a functional mix for the achievement of the expected objectives. In fact, we believe that there is no single source of energy capable of leading us towards climate neutrality: the most profitable way to go is that of cooperation between different energy sources and different interlocutors who operate jointly in view of the search for well-being of people and safeguarding the future of the planet, without forgetting the economic sustainability of the process.

This position is relatively new, since until a few years ago it was common opinion that, to reduce emissions, the main road to be taken was to abandon gas in favor of electricity obtained from renewable sources, such as solar energy, wind energy or that hydroelectric. More recently, however, more and more entities have declared that, according to their assessments, electricity alone will not be sufficient to achieve the expected objectives.

The same Eurelectric sector association, which represents the common interests of the electricity industry at European level, has estimated that electricity in 2050 will be able to cover a value equal to 38-60% of European energy needs (the percentage varies according to the different hypothesized scenarios): this is certainly a great step forward in the direction of decarbonisation, especially if we compare these data with those relating to the use of energy from fossil sources of the 1990s, but it is still evident that it is not realistic to imagine a scenario in which electricity alone is able to meet the transport, air conditioning and industrial production needs of the entire EU.

Added to this are further problems, linked for example to the costs to be incurred to create infrastructures capable of responding to the needs of distribution, transport and storage of such large quantities of electricity, or to the problem of decommissioning existing and functioning gas networks, or the need to meet the needs of companies that operate with very high temperature processes, which would require an extremely high investment of electricity. Similar problems also arise from the point of view of transport, since, while it is certain that more and more vehicles for private use and for local transport are powered by electricity (and this trend is destined to consolidate and grow in the time), it is difficult to think of being able to count on this energy source even for heavy transport. Finally, we must not forget that the production of electricity through hydroelectric systems, in order to give sufficient guarantees in terms of balance between supply and demand, requires the use of turbines for pumping which, in most cases, are powered by gas, and that currently about one third of gas consumption in Italy is used in thermoelectric plants to produce electricity (in 2020, out of approximately 70 billion cubic meters used in Italy, 25 billion were used for this purpose).

For all these reasons, the belief that - in order to achieve the climate neutrality objectives by 2050 - it is essential to think of a form of integration between electricity (which can support, as mentioned, up to a maximum of 60% of the requirement) and gases, especially in the form of the so-called “green gas” (for example biomethane and green hydrogen, so called because they do not emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere).

In this scenario, the European demand for natural gas between now and 2050 would be drastically reduced and the existing infrastructure could be effectively converted, as well as for the transport of natural gas, also for the distribution of green gas. This combination will make it possible to achieve climate neutrality at the lowest possible cost, thanks to the integration of electricity from renewable sources and green gas, and this will guarantee concrete savings also in economic terms. In fact, it is estimated that, by proceeding in this direction, the EU will be able to save € 80 billion each year on gas imports, € 12 billion on oil imports and € 1.7 billion on coal imports.

The synergy between electricity and gas for heating buildings

For many years, building heating systems based on the use of electric heat pumps (partly powered by photovoltaic systems) or on district heating have been spreading, and the tendency to design buildings completely disconnected from the gas network is now consolidated, to reasons of economic savings, greater environmental sustainability and possible supply difficulties, also due to geopolitical causes.

The choice to completely renounce gas can be valid, if supported by appropriate measures in the design phase of the building, but it is certainly not the only possible option, especially in the case in which one goes to intervene on existing buildings, in which it is there is already a connection to the gas network (in this regard, it is good to remember that Italy is one of the countries in which the methane distribution network is more widespread, and that today in our country about 85% of homes are heated with gas systems).

In this case, opt for the installation of a hybrid heat pump, which exploits the combination of renewable energy coming from the air, water or ground combined with the use of gas (as already happens with Robur GAHP, gas absorption heat pumps) allows to obtain extremely satisfactory results in terms of efficiency and energy saving, and is the fastest and most economical solution with a view to real decarbonisation of the plant.

This development direction is now strongly consolidated: the EU itself, in its document In depth analysis in support of Commission Communication COM (2018) 773, states that by 2050 34% of the needs for heating, the production of domestic hot water and the industry will be covered by electrical technologies, and that the other consumers will use renewable gaseous fuels (green hydrogen, bio-gas...) with the contribution of small quantities of natural gas.

Starting from these data, it is therefore possible to make some assumptions about the scenarios that we will most likely face in the coming decades: all the elements suggest that we will see an increasing use of green hydrogen, which will go hand in hand with the increasingly massive diffusion of gas heat pumps or hybrid appliances that integrate the potential of a condensing boiler and an electric heat pump, in an "intelligent" operating logic, able to make the best use of the available energy mix. Solutions of this type are undoubtedly among the most functional and most concretely applicable, especially with a view to improving the performance - and reducing emissions - of existing plants.