From natural gas to synthetic gas

Why one solution no longer serves all

In my country, the Netherlands, a debate is raging on the use of natural gas. There is no better description of humankind interfering with the Earth’s natural processes than the human-induced earthquakes that are destabilising communities in the province of Groningen. A second Golden Age was envisioned given the wealth of the enormous natural gas reserves beneath the North of the country when discovered. Extensive underground transportation and distribution networks were created to allow for the export of the gas, but also to connect households to natural gas for heating and cooking. The latter was even made mandatory by law; each house had a right to be attached to the network.

How things have changed. The destabilising of local communities because of the gas extraction has become a politician’s nightmare and fast growing business for legal experts. Court decisions on damage awards stipulate that not just the material damages should be considered, also the immaterial damages caused by the insecurity of the ground moving and houses shaking, needs to be compensated. The whole situation has become such an issue that the word ‘gas’ has now become as bad as the word CO2. Both threaten our existence as humankind by our actions.

Although the issue itself is complex, and finding solutions is just as complex, in a time honoured tradition the whole issue is solved by politicians and decision makers in a swift and bold decision. Reduce the amount of gas that is extracted drastically and ween off the need for gas by decoupling all households from this resource, to begin with, each new build home. The law, of course, needs to be changed for this, but when under pressure decision making can take place in record-breaking time. Alternatives are still scarce, but these will develop rapidly as the market takes over to create new concepts, given the potential demand of 7.8 million households.

What amazes me is the fact that the need to be seen to take swift action leads to decisions that when looked at closer can only be seen to be reckless. The Netherlands has one enormous asset; this is the underground transportation and distribution network of pipes and cables. This system is there to be used, and the first question that springs to mind is: can we use that network to solve the issue? The answer to that question is yes. We can produce synthetic gas using renewable energy and CO2. The process for doing so still needs more research, prototyping and upscaling to be able to meet the demand. As a potential solution, it has two significant advantages. Firstly it contributes to the reduction of CO2 and meeting the Paris Climate Agreement. Secondly, it utilises a network that is already available, saving on the need to develop all kinds of new technologies to be implemented at household scale. Technologies that potentially also threaten the way we can use underground space, as geothermal energy suddenly becomes the solution for everything.

The most significant lesson to be taken from all this is that given the complex challenges facing humankind, one solution can no longer solve all. It needs to be a mix, and utilising the assets you have and at the same time capturing and using CO2 rather than just storing it, makes a whole lot of sense.