Why Natural Gas Won’t Be Replaced Anytime Soon

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By Irina Slav

“Gas will be a repeat of coal but quicker. When we look at power generation, you can see that going really, really quickly.” This is what the head of company search at the Carbon Tracker Initiative told Bloomberg this month in comments on the future of natural gas in Europe, as news outlet reported that some large European utilities are having trouble finding buyers for their gas-fired plants.

The report cites Spanish Iberdrola as struggling to find buyers for gas plants. It also cites Italy’s Enel as planning to add more gas-fired generation capacity despite long-term plans to shift entirely to non-fossil fuel sources of energy.

According to Carbon Tracker, these are signs that natural gas is on its way out, in a way similar to coal. The gas phase-out, however, will be quicker than coal’s because there aren’t as many people employed in gas extraction in Europe, the carbon research initiative explains. And this, Bloomberg reports, citing calculations by Global Energy Monitor, could result in losses of more than $100 billion from building pipelines, terminals, and other infrastructure that are destined to become stranded assets by 2050.

This view is apocalyptic for gas. It does not, however, necessarily reflect reality. The report mentions the dramatic drop in solar and wind power costs over the past years. But it is also worth noting that this drop in costs has done nothing to solve the intermittency problem of these two renewable power generation sources. That’s possibly because the only technologically viable solution to this problem is battery storage—and this is nowhere near cheap.

Hydrogen, while not featured in the article, is also touted as an alternative to gas, mainly for heating. Hydrogen production costs, alas, remain too high for the time being despite all the optimistic forecasts. Some believe they would never drop low enough to make the only purely renewable type of hydrogen—the only that uses electrolysis—economically viable.

Yet Britain is selling its gas-fired power plants—and not just to anyone but to private equity companies. According to Bloomberg, “Historically the involvement of private equity is to squeeze the asset to extract all remaining value.” Gas, therefore, faces a bleak future in Britain, but also in Spain and Portugal, as investors, according to the report, shun fossil fuel generation.

At the same time, Poland expects a 60-percent jump in natural gas demand as it phases out its coal-fired power plants under pressure from Brussels. Germany is sticking to its Nord Stream 2 plans despite the sanction pressure applied by the United States because it, too, is phasing out its coal power plants and also its nuclear plants. This is gas demand that will not decline anytime soon, at least until cheap energy storage is invented for solar and wind farms.

And that’s just Europe, which is further than anyone else on the way to renewable energy status. Globally, gas will continue to be popular, with demand rising until 2037, according to McKinsey. After that, it will plateau and start declining, but moderately. According to the consultancy, by 2050, gas demand will shed 0.4 percent between 2035 and 2050.

That is not so apocalyptic.

Shell, too, believes that natural gas will remain essential for the rush to net zero. In its latest LNG Outlook, the supermajor cited forecasts that see global gas demand rising strongly thanks to Asia, driving a twofold increase in LNG demand alone, from 360 million tons last year to 700 million tons in 2040.

Europe is becoming a little obsessed with its green energy agenda, it seems. This has prompted criticism from environmental scientists, but they remain a quiet minority that only has social media as an outlet for their views. Meanwhile, the continent is soldiering on in its war on fossil fuels. At the same time, it continues to rely on these fossil fuels when there is no light for the solar panels to absorb—which happened in Germany for days on end this January—and when the British offshore wind turbine fleet was hit with a wind drought a few years ago.

The reports of gas’s death many turn out to be greatly exaggerated.

Crude Oil

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