With nuclear power generation being phased out and coal considered too inflexible, natural gas as a source of electricity generation is drawing increased interest in Germany to balance its national grid, which is rapidly moving toward total reliance on renewable sources for power generation.

Even shale gas may overcome current negative connotations in parts of Europe, according to several energy stakeholders in Germany contacted by NGI.

“The ideal compensation for renewables is natural gas,” said Ruggero Schleicher-Tappeser, a physicist and Berlin-based energy consultant. “With gas turbines you can very flexibly move generation up and down, and you can have lower upfront costs, too.

“The discussion in Germany now is centered on what to do after the rapid shutdown of nuclear by 2022; how do you substitute, or make up for it?”

At its peak nuclear provided close to 30% of Germany’s electricity, and gas has provided about 25%, mostly from the North Sea and Russia, Schleicher-Tappeser said.

With a strong natural gas pipeline/storage infrastructure but limits on supply sources, Europe is putting more research and development into making synthetic methane from hydrogen, which some energy stakeholders think will be the future means of beefing up natural gas supplies. A number of large utilities are partnering with researchers in Germany who think this has commercial possibilities.

The prospects are rejuvenating gas operators in Europe after recent stagnation relative to the electricity sector.

The concept being pursued starts with hydrogen produced from an advanced hydrolysis process and then combining that hydrogen with carbon dioxide to produce synthetic natural gas (syngas). Various small and large research projects are ongoing, according to Schleicher. The applications for the syngas go far beyond power generation, he said.

“The research is very open-ended,” Schleicher-Tappeser said. “You could use the syngas in transportation as a substitute for petroleum like there are efforts ongoing in the United States to switch to natural gas for transportation.”

He said the applications for power generation are considerable, not in large turbines, but in cogeneration facilities. “In Europe we expect a stronger coupling of power generation and heating.”

The idea of expanding the sources of gas through syngas is reinvigorating the gas industry in places like Germany where it has lacked much of a future until only relatively recently, according to Schleicher-Tappeser. “If you talked to gas people [in Europe] two years ago, they were very short-sighted and unsure of what their future was,” he said. “Now Europeans are beginning to see that the natural gas infrastructure is very important in linking the gas and power markets.”

Schleicher-Tappeser thinks European natural gas operators see alternatives to having to rely more heavily on increased supplies from Russia.

“We have also had discussions on shale gas along the model of the exploration going on in the United States, and in Germany and France there are suspected [probable] reserves, but public opposition is very strong because of the hydraulic fracturing [fracking].”

He said the concerns about fallout from the chemicals used, and the fact that Europe is much more densely populated than the United States, have worried average Europeans. The population generally cannot be buffered as much from the exploration and production, should shale suddenly take on the mass development that North America is experiencing, Schleicher-Tappeser said.

Giant global oil/gas producer Total has proposed exploring shale areas in France without fracking, but the French government has refused to let the company proceed with very preliminary studies, a Paris-based Total spokesperson told NGI.

Schleicher-Tappeser said there are “guesses” that there might be a lot of shale in places in Europe, but what he called “a large number of influential people say there is no chance to get to it. We don’t see it as a long-term option over here.”

Nevertheless, he said gas is — and will continue — playing a strong role as a balancing fuel for renewables, and without nuclear over the longer term, it will become more important in the German energy mix. There is a strong gas infrastructure system to rely on, according to Schleicher-Tappeser.

Total confirmed that this is the case in its European operations. Unconventional gas and oil are a key part of its strategies for the future, the Total spokesperson said.

“Generally, the pipeline and storage infrastructure for Europe is excellent,” Schleicher-Tappeser said. “We have a very dense [gas] grid and storage facilities that are very good as well.”

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