OFGEM SBR decisions push green targets further out - SBR promises reprieve for ageing and costly UK coal-fired power stations

Issues affecting electricity generators and the energy market as a whole.

The UK has one of the most sophisticated gas distribution networks in the world, serving 22.6m households with natural gas. More than 80 per cent of UK homes currently use natural gas for their heating and many use it for cooking too. One of the dilemmas that National Grid and the gas distribution network operators have been wrestling with is how to continue distributing gas in the volumes that we are currently distributing while simultaneously de-carbonising. The answer is of course to use the network to distribute an increasingly interesting mix of low-carbon green gases.

First up in this category is Biomethane. This can be extracted from grasses and slurry for example. Anaerobic Digesters (AD) create biomethane from a range of agricultural waste products including chicken manure and corn stover.

Today seems like a good day to talk about the potential of biomethane as 20th April is UK Biomethane Day. The Renewable Energy Association (REA), which runs the associated conference, recently confirmed that 61 operational Biomethane to Grid projects are now live, with the UK having the fastest growing, most innovative and diverse biomethane market in Europe. So far so good.

Next up is BioSNG (Synthetic Natural Gas) or thermal gasification of biomass. In the gasification process the biomass is converted into a gas, with main components CO, CO2, CH4, H2 and water. In order for the gas to be classified as SNG a methanation process is necessary to increase heating value and Wobbe index. For SNG production it is an advantage if the product gas is free of nitrogen. The Netherlands is one country that has moved well ahead of us in both ambition and BioSNG production levels. Its plans are to replace 50% of its natural gas production with BioSNG by 2030.

The proven gasification technology, developed by a Swiss-Austrian consortium and produced by Austrian company Repotec, has already been chosen for a large-scale GoBiGas in Gothenburg, Sweden. This plant will utilise HaldorTopsoes TREM technology for methanation of the producer gas. Methanation of gas from gasified biomass in a plant of this size is presently unheard of, and, therefore, the project will be highly prestigious and the success or failure will definitely influence the future development in bio-SNG production.

The GoBiGas plant will turn wood waste (tree tops, roots and branches) into 1 TWh of BioSNG in 2020. The first stage of the project is a 20 MW facility has been operating for four years, and a second 80MW facility is due to open shortly. Goteborg Energi which runs the project, ran intensive studies of indirect gasification and pressurised oxygen blown gasification, before selecting the twin-bed FICFC platform.

So proven technology for efficient extraction of BioSNG is definitely out there. National Grid itself has built a Demonstration Plant with a view, if successful, of increasing the potential availability of renewable gas in the UK by 100TWh. The environmental benefits will include contributing to the acceleration of a low carbon economy, the decarbonisation of heat, and a marked reduction of waste volumes going to landfill. The economic benefits include new investment opportunities which will provide affordable energy for consumers, and the possibility of increased local control over waste processing linked to green energy generation. BioSNG could potentially offer us a third of UK domestic gas demand in the future. Funding for this project came from Ofgem Network Innovation Competition and the European BioEnergy Securing the Future ERANET programme.

Hydrogen is the next option for distribution via National Grids infrastructure and all eight UK distribution networks pipes. Leeds-based Northern Gas Network (NGN) is leading the UKs push to use hydrogen instead of natural gas. Just last week its plans for converting the whole of the city of Leeds to hydrogen from natural gas were announced. According to national newspaper reports on this 2bn project, the entire gas network for the city of Leeds, including all domestic gas boilers and cookers, would be converted to run on clean-burning hydrogen by 2030.

If successful NGNs model could be replicated in other major cities across the UK. There are concerns about the need to adapt distribution networks and make a range of other technical changes to make widespread distribution of hydrogen safe enough. But many of these issues will now be addressed by NGN. Detailed academic studies, showing the investment levels and technical challenges required for wholesale UK conversion from natural gas to hydrogen, show the scale of the job if NGNs Leeds project progresses well and other networks decide to embrace a hydrogen revolution.

So Amber Rudd's dash for gas may yet morph into a green gas revolution in the coming years. Indeed longer-term National Grid and all eight gas distribution network companies very existences depend on it.

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