Did you say renewable gas?

Vlerick’s Chair Partner Fluxys explores the link between gas and electricity in the energy transition

By 2050, we need to keep the increase in the global average temperature below 2°C – and ideally below 1.5°C. In order to achieve this goal, the Holy Grail is to switch to electricity en masse. ‘And what about natural gas?’ asked the natural gas transporter Fluxys. “Gas is also renewable. Over the next five years, we want to explore how we can link the – underexplored – possibilities of gas to those of electricity.” And rightly so, because hardly anyone still believes that the future will be entirely electric in 2050.

Rudy Van Beurden (Fluxys) - Leonardo Meeus (Vlerick)
Rudy Van Beurden, Communication & Public Affairs Manager at Fluxys, and Professor Leonardo Meeus, Vlerick Energy Centre: “Renewable gas will be needed.”

The meeting has been set up at Fluxys’ headquarters in the heart of Brussels. When Rudy Van Beurden, the Communication & Public Affairs Manager at Fluxys, and our Energy Professor Leonardo Meeus pull up their chairs for this double interview, they have already held their regular meeting about the research as part of this Chair Partnership. The mood is warm, despite the fact that the original reason for this partnership was a feeling of incomprehension. Rudy Van Beurden explains: “When we tuned into the discussion in the media and the academic world, then there was a lot of talk about electrification: we need to harness more renewable energy, and renewable means electricity. But the gas sector also has a range of opportunities to offer (see box). We will need to tap into these if we want to meet the Paris Climate Agreement targets.”

“Out of sight, out of mind”

Our Energy Professor, Leonardo Meeus, agrees: “I was also one of those academics who were looking at the energy transition from an electrical perspective. When it came to gas, it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. In the first months of this partnership, I have already expanded my knowledge enormously. It is one thing to understand that the future in 2050 will not be entirely electric. But the next step is to ask what should happen to the gas sector? And this is the theme of our research: what makes this link between gas and electricity possible? Are the opportunities offered by renewable gas being optimally exploited? What context do we need to bring about this transition in the gas sector too?”

“I was also looking at the energy transition from an electrical perspective.” Professor Leonardo Meeus

“Pioneering work”

To date, only a limited amount of research has been carried out into the convergence of gas and electricity. “In a certain sense, the research within this Chair partnership will be pioneering work”, Professor Meeus asserts. “The five-year horizon also gives us the scope to develop new competencies within the Energy Centre. Through research, our aim is to arrive at a workable model for Fluxys, which can function as an academic sounding board in two or three years’ time when the gas debate is in full swing. Moreover, Fluxys is a partner that fits admirably into the international profile of the other partners within the Centre: a Belgian player with international operations that is well known in the sector for its innovative approach. This ‘fit’ is important, because alongside the rigorous academic work, we want to use it to inform the Centre’s electricity experts about the possible interactions between electricity and gas.”

Renewable energy boot camp

It is also important to broaden our students’ perspective. “At the renewable energy boot camp, when I came to present the story about renewable gas, it really made the Masters and MBA students sit up”, grins Rudy Van Beurden. “Their reactions were highly enriching. After all, we often talk to people from our own sector. But students are also an important target group: a number of them are sure to end up working in the energy sector, or will come into contact with energy in one way or another.”

“Students are also an important target group for us.” Rudy Van Beurden

Employer branding

One final element that we will be touching on in this partnership is employer branding. Rudy Van Beurden explains: “At the start of this year, we had 120 vacancies, but it is not easy to mobilise people to come and work in a sector that they believe to be on its last legs. However nothing could be further from the truth. Through Vlerick channels, we can also search for the people we will need both today and in the future.”

Gas for climate: four opportunities

According to the Paris Climate Agreement, we need to keep the increase in the overall increase in temperature below 2°C by 2050 – and ideally below 1.5°C. Below are four opportunities offered by gas and the gas sector that will help us to achieve this goal more easily.

1. Gas is also renewable

Renewable gas can come in many different forms, such as biomethane from manure. But surpluses of sun or wind energy can also be used to generate renewable gas, in this case hydrogen. Instead of shutting off a turbine, it is a better idea to convert the electricity it generates into hydrogen. Hydrogen can then be used in transport, industry or heating, or to produce more electricity. If you have enough hydrogen, you can add CO2 to it again to make synthetic methane, which has the same chemical composition as natural gas, but which is renewable because it uses captured CO2.

2. Infrastructure for transportation is already in place

Fluxys transports natural gas using assets which are mainly fully depreciated already. This underground network has a certain value and can also be used in the future. Society has paid for it, so there is also a social role for the gas and electricity network to play.

3. The storage and supply of gas is cheap and flexible

In Belgium, our greatest energy consumption takes place on winter mornings and evenings, when there is no sunlight and solar panels are no use. It is therefore crucially important to be able to store electricity, but that is expensive. Recycled gas can be stored just like natural gas is now, and be injected into the network.

4. The EU can save 130 billion euros per year

recent study by Ecofys has shown that a scenario with gas can deliver an annual profit of 130 billion euros per year for the EU. More about the Gas for Climate initiative.

Discover our expertise in energy

The energy sector is likely to face more changes in the next 10 years than in the last 100. New technologies, organisational challenges, regulation… they will affect you, as a business and as a customer. But change also equals opportunities – even if there are no easy answers. The Vlerick Energy Centre will help you to master that change. We will challenge you to think ahead and find new solutions for tomorrow’s world.