How will the development of a green gas infrastructure benefit Northern Ireland?
What is green gas?
Green gas refers to biomethane gas derived from sustainable processes such as anaerobic digestion (AD). In Northern Ireland (NI), the agri-food sectors’ turnover is greater than £4.8 billion per annum. This sector produces a lot of organic waste which can be processed by an AD plant to produce green gas.
Moderate scale AD plants produce biomethane, which is essentially the same as natural gas (in terms of its properties) and can be used for the same applications. There are approximately 50 AD plants already in NI. Many of these producers currently use the gas on-site for renewable electricity generation but gas from these or future AD plants could equally be injected into the existing gas network.
Natural gas already produces around half the greenhouse gas emissions compared to oil and coal and the transition to natural gas in NI has brought many benefits; primarily reducing our dependence on oil and coal and converting our coal power stations for gas for cleaner electricity production. According to a recent Phoenix Gas report, it is estimated that natural gas users have reduced NI's carbon emissions by approximately 1 million tonnes per annum.
Green gas as a transition fuel?
It is notable that in September 2019, Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar accepted the recommendation from its Climate Change Advisory Council and announced an end to Ireland’s oil exploration by 2025. Ireland’s gas exploration will continue in the meantime as a transition fuel, until it can decarbonise its gas network, but is this viable in NI considering the current political uncertainty?
We have at least one advantage. We don’t often consider ourselves as fortunate in NI but since our natural gas network is so modern (established since 1996) it was constructed with polyurethane piping which can transport various gases, unlike ageing networks in other countries which require upgrading. This means our existing gas infrastructure can readily adapt to green gas injection so our future activities and future policies can focus on increasing the supply of green gas into the network.
The application of green gas in NI
NI clearly faces challenges relating to the absence of devolved government and Brexit but the Utility Regulator is shortly due to review the regulatory position on green gas injection which will begin to pave the way for reducing the carbon in our gas network. Subject to regulatory approval, green gas can easily be injected into the gas network and play a vital role in decarbonisation. In the rest of the UK and in RoI this is already common practice.
Another interesting application for natural gas is as a road transport fuel. This is an existing growth area in the rest of the UK and ROI, providing a clean and less expensive alternative to diesel. Primarily used for commercial vehicle fleets, this is already widely employed by fleet operators including Tesco. This would increase the demand for gas but in tandem with green gas injection and ambitious targets for decarbonising the gas network, grid injection would provide a viable way of addressing the highly carbon-intensive transport sector as well as providing opportunities for the agri-food sector in NI.
To read more about developments in other alternative forms of energy such as hydrogen, have a look at our other blogs.