Gas diversion to a renewable, electric future

The only logical transition is a direct switch to renewables in combination with a focus on energy efficiency. Gas is simply an expensive diversion – in more ways than one.

Electrification of the economy, in particular replacing fossil fuels used for transport and heating purposes, is much easier than many suggest and we do not need ’lots more electricity‘ to make the switch. 

Energy efficiency is a resource many are aware of, it can be mined like any resource and is so large that the equivalent energy required to electrify low temperature heating in our houses, our transportation and many industrial processes can be supplied by it, without any need to add significantly more generation capacity to our grid.

Improved efficiency is inherent in key electric technologies such as heat pumps and electric motors which replace standard heaters and combustion engines. Indeed, it can deliver energy savings of around 80 per cent at the point of use.

And if we can move to an ‘Electric Planet’ – as promoted by Monash University Chancellor Alan Finkel – without a large increase in power generation,  then there is no justification for a so-called low emissions transition with fossil gas (coal seam gas, shale and conventional) . 

Fossil gas in fact is dirtier than coal as its modern day extraction through unconventional mining is releasing greater than 2 per cent of the gas as fugitive emissions.

The stationary energy plan, which I co-authored in conjunction with the University of Melbourne, and research to date on electrification of buildings and transport shows there is no need for fossil fuels in the Australian energy mix. What’s more, in almost all cases fossil gas (the scientific term for natural gas) is dirtier than coal, so why bother?

Energy

While data from Australia and the US show that coal seam and shale gas extraction results in fugitive emissions at a rate of 4-15 per cent (meaning that the fossil gas is more climate damaging than any coal in the country), renewables keep coming down in price and growing in market share. 

The IEA says renewables will surpass gas in global energy by 2016 and will reach 25 per cent of all energy by 2018. At the end of this year the world’s biggest inverter manufacturer will sell a turnkey solar battery solution which will allow ordinary consumers to use their solar at night instead of buying from the grid, making solar energy even cheaper and carving out a further part of the electricity supply in favour of that technology.

Combined cycle gas power plants at best achieve 50 per cent net efficiency in converting gas to electrical energy (this doesn’t include all the energy lost during gas exploration and extraction of course). Average these plants’ efficiency for everyday cycling, and they’re lucky to achieve 40 per cent annualised efficiency.

Buildings

Winter heating is a big part of energy consumption in Australia, in fact only Queensland uses more energy in cooling residential buildings than in heating them.  In Victoria, where 72 times the energy is used to heat buildings versus cooling them, we are using gas. And gas is shockingly wasteful.

Zero Emissions Australia research shows that losses in obtaining heat from a residential central gas heater amounts to more than 75 per cent of the gas energy injected by a gas production facility (i.e. Longford) into the gas transmission system.  Six to 12 per cent of gas energy is lost in transmission, distribution and storage, 30-50 per cent is lost from ducting and 15-30 per cent of gas energy is lost via the flue which vents exhaust gasses. And that’s not taking into account the 2-15 per cent gas energy that is lost during exploration and extraction (migratory emissions, well workovers, well completions etc.), a number that is rising all the time as we shift to unconventional sources.

By comparison, 70 per cent of Australian households have an air conditioner which can be used to heat homes in winter, in Northern Europe they are sold as ‘heat pumps’. Initially we can get a big carbon saving just by switching off our gas heaters and switching on our air conditioners in reverse cycle heat mode.

Air conditioners sold before the year 2000 generally use outdated technology that has poor performance. Replacing these with the best performing modular split units on the market in 2013 will reduce energy consumption a further 50 per cent. Such upgrades will also drastically reduce the need for augmentations of our electricity distribution system, the main factor causing our electricity bills to skyrocket.

Transport

Electric vehicles will add to electricity demand. Yet this will be offset by the rollout of solar PV and the energy saved in moving Australian homes to heating using heat pumps rather than outdated electric element heaters.

Also an electric vehicle uses 70-80 per cent less energy compared with a conventional, fossil fuel powered car to go the same distance. Therefore a large switch to electric vehicles lowers the total energy consumed by the transport sector. 

Concerns about the range of electric vehicles can be overcome with plug-in hybrid vehicles such as the Holden Volt (already on sale in Australia). Research has shown these cars are driven mostly in electric mode with the petrol motor giving the customer peace of mind, rather than being regularly used. 

Many passenger trips that are now needlessly serviced by cars can be move to electrified rail (trains and trams); this offers an order of magnitude efficiency saving when compared with the same trip in a car. In other countries this has been achieved through a rapid rollout of high quality, regular high speed rail services across the country. 

Industry

Many lower temperature industrial heating needs can be electrified and made significantly more efficient. For chemical processes some industrial feedstock will be required, and can be supplied using biogas.

Biogas should not be used for electricity production where possible, that is a lower order use. In chemical processes where a liquid or gaseous chemical feedstock is required, biogas is the only safe solution. If restricted to being a chemical feedstock , and not used as fuel, biogas production should not need to impinge on food production, nor make use of remnant native forests. This is because biogas can be produced using waste rather than virgin resources.

Transition

The only logical transition is a direct switch to renewables as well as energy efficiency, which can be mined like any resource. There is no need to increase power production but instead mine energy efficiency. 

Gas is an expensive diversion and not a shortcut. It will leave us with costly stranded gas assets, and higher electricity costs when compared to solar and wind. It is dirtier than coal in all applications due to fugitive methane (which is much more damaging to the climate than combusted gas) emitted in exploration, extraction, distribution and conversion. 

Even if we ignore the fugitive emissions involved with using gas we only have to replace half as much coal capacity with renewables when compared with gas to get the same CO2 reduction. But we can’t ignore fugitive gas emissions; they are real and mean that investing in gas is a bad idea for the climate. 

An ’Electric Planet‘ is ideal and can be achieved with renewables today.

Matthew Wright is Executive Director at Zero Emissions Australia.