In this interview, Dr Robert Judd discusses how the natural gas sector is evolving as the global energy transition gains momentum—and the keys for stronger collaboration between Asia and Europe in the shift towards a low carbon energy future.
- How do you see the role of natural gas as a "transition fuel" evolving over the near term?
There are a number of areas that need to be considered. Gas is a reliable and abundant energy source. It is, today, a vital part of the energy mix and plays a critical role in global energy security. In the short term, there are huge gains to be made by gas in displacing coal from the power generation mix. Of course, this is often dependent on the local availability of gas.
The gas industry can also partner with renewables in a number of ways, leading to greater flexibility in the energy system. Energy is much more easily stored in gaseous form, and this provides another option for managing variable quantities of renewables through technologies such as power to gas. As we progress towards 2050, we expect to see the gas in our networks being increasingly low carbon—a mixture of biomethane and hydrogen, each with its own advantages.
A credible path to decarbonisation will require more than just electrification. Integrating the strengths of both electricity and gas is the most effective way to create a sustainable low-carbon economy. Gas is a cost-efficient solution to reduce emissions drastically, and we need to work with all players to ensure the gas industry can play its full role.
The shift from coal to natural gas contributes to the reduction of carbon footprint, given the latter’s higher hydrogen/carbon ratio and efficient combustion. Where feasible, we can use natural gas in power generation to displace coal and also provide the operational flexibility needed to enable renewables.
Industrial and heavy transport decarbonisation are two of the biggest challenges for reaching net zero. Making progress in these areas requires an economic and affordable decarbonisation option. As an affordable source of energy, gas is a first step in providing a solution to this dilemma. This is particularly important for developing countries, who are often reliant on coal and need an affordable alternative.
Gas infrastructure is a strategic asset for the integration, security, and stability of the power system. The system can integrate large quantities of renewable and low-carbon gases with minimal technical adaptation and at lower costs than electrification, bringing benefits to the whole society, and enabling a just and inclusive transition.
Gas is also an ideal partner to renewable electricity as it ensures a stable energy source irrespective of weather conditions. Flexible gas plants can be at full power in minutes and shut down instantly, enabling optimal use of clean energy sources.
Energy storage is another important enabler for the energy transition, supporting the production of low-carbon energy while ensuring reliable supply of energy to consumers at all times. Gas storage and LNG storage and transport will play a major role in meeting the flexibility requirements of changing and coupled markets.
There is a huge growth potential for low-carbon and renewable gases, many of which can already be injected into existing infrastructure. The gas industry is further supporting the development of innovative technologies such as carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS), power-to-gas, and hydrogen-ready applications to provide solutions for the low-carbon energy systems of the future.
- Could you share more about the role of natural gas in the European Green Deal?
The European Green Deal is a framework of legislation, regulation, and investment that is designed to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050, through a just and inclusive transition.
Nearly every major aspect of the European economy is impacted, including energy generation, food consumption, transport, manufacturing, and construction. This will build on past and existing initiatives in part. The key is integrating all these elements into a sustainable circular economy.
The Green Deal will work through a framework of regulation and legislation, setting clear overarching targets – a bloc-wide goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. A 50-55% cut in emissions by 2030 (compared with 1990 levels) is at the core, alongside incentives to encourage private sector investment.
The role of gas is recognised in the Green Deal framework, but this is expected to be given more solidity through the so called ‘Gas Legislative Package’, which will set out the regulatory incentives for the next stage of reforms in the gas market. This is expected at around the time of SIEW 2021 in October. The Green Deal explicitly mentions the role gaseous fuels will play in decarbonising the hard-to-decarbonise sectors (heavy transport and industry, for example).
The Green Deal also recognises the role of decarbonising gas and new innovation in gas technology in helping meet the early targets of a 55% reduction in GHG by 2030 (compared to 1990). The gas industry in Europe has voiced its commitment to adapting its supply and transportation infrastructure to help achieve this target.
While other decarbonisation solutions are being scaled up, gases are the affordable solution already on the market. Available to all households, on and off grid, the affordability of gas will ensure that no one is left behind in the green transition.
- Hydrogen has been gaining much attention as a clean alternative to fossil fuels. What does it take for hydrogen to be scaled for mainstream adoption?
We tend to think of hydrogen as something new. Indeed, the ways we will use it are new and innovative. But we often tend to forget the role that hydrogen has played in our lives for a long time and that the production of hydrogen is already one of the largest-scale chemical processes globally. Indeed, since the gas industry first came to Singapore, the town gas process has been producing a hydrogen-rich fuel for peoples’ homes. This continues at Senoko where steam reforming of natural gas still delivers fuel with a hydrogen content of around 60%.
The future of hydrogen will need to exploit its synergies with future developments in natural gas, carbon capture and renewable technologies. Although in the long term, renewable production (green hydrogen) will need to scale up enormously to meet demand, the combination of reforming of natural gas and CCS (blue hydrogen) can potentially meet early demand—as long as the policies, political triggers and incentives allow. Many industry commentators see blue hydrogen as the enabler of the longer-term shift to green hydrogen production by ensuring that the developing markets can be supplied early in the roadmap to hydrogen networks.
Just as critical as the means of hydrogen production is the question of distribution. Existing gas networks provide a highly flexible and responsive transport and distribution infrastructure, which will be used to take hydrogen from production to end user in the future. A lot of work is underway now to understand the extent of the challenges of adapting and repurposing these networks, either for blends or for dedicated hydrogen use. GERG is at the centre of this major effort to understand this challenge in greater detail, and to mitigate any problems through innovation.
- In your view, what are the keys to unlocking greater collaboration between Asia and Europe in the push towards the low carbon energy transition?
Decarbonisation is a global challenge. Emissions do not stop at borders, and the global COP process is incentivising a more market and regulatory based approach to decarbonisation. But it is important to recognise that each region or nation is at a different stage and with different needs. Europe has been able to make huge advances in the implementation of carbon reduction technologies through regulation, despite carbon markets by themselves having limited impact. There is huge potential across Asia for the utilisation of substantial renewable resources, which also goes hand-in-hand with job and new industry creation.
Of course, the cost associated with energy transition is a major factor, particularly for developing countries, and the opportunity for technology, knowledge and skills transfer needs to be better realised through the development of knowledge networks and removal of barriers to harmonised approaches.
Importantly, several Asian countries are strategically positioned geographically to be at the centre of supply and distribution hubs for fuels such as hydrogen, mirroring what is already happening for LNG. There are many such synergies that can be further developed to bring down the cost of the transition. At GERG, we are keen to demonstrate how our own knowledge can be implemented, particularly in illustrating that a gas-based approach can bring forward early gains at a global level.
- What are you looking forward to discussing at SIEW 2021?
Some of the topics and issues I look forward to discussing include the COVID-19 recovery and how can we adapt and rebuild for a better energy future. I am also keen to hear from other industry players on what are some energy system transformation and lessons we can learn from each other; what are the scenarios at play and how is the region stepping up to meet them. Lastly, it would be good to see how greater international collaboration and cooperation can be a platform for growth and transition—recognising that our challenges are global, and how we all have a role to play in advancing the energy transition.
Over a 30-year career Robert has worked on a diverse portfolio of gas and energy projects, with focus on innovation and driving solutions to emerging industry challenges. Robert worked for over 20 years in the technology arm of the UK gas industry and has managed technical teams and projects in the UK, Europe and worldwide, including extensive experience in Asia. As Secretary General of European Gas Research Group, he manages an Association of 30 major European companies and research organisations, realigning strategic research priorities with Europe’s clean energy agenda while building relationships with stakeholders and policy makers at all levels.
He is leading a number of technical and regulatory initiatives at European level including Roadmap lead (Gas Networks) for Hydrogen Europe’s Strategic Innovation Agenda, convening a European Taskforce on Hydrogen standardisation (CEN /EC) and is managing flagship European Commission projects on hydrogen and biomethane on behalf of GERG. Robert has published extensively on a range of energy technology issues, and has been invited to present a European perspective in several recent international fora.
Robert also recently chaired the Singapore Gas Markets Advisory Panel for their energy regulator (EMA), and is a member of the Singapore International Advisory Panel on Energy and served on EMA’s Gas research expert panel.
Robert has BSc and PhD degrees from London University in Physical Chemistry, worked for 5 years as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Cambridge University Chemical Laboratories and is a Chartered Chemical Engineer.