How to reduce natural gas dependency at your facility

March 8, 2021
Peter Garforth says the job of the energy manager is more strategically pivotal than ever before.

In many countries, the alignment of clean energy transitions and the COVID-19 recovery is opening new possibilities. This is clearly high on the policy agenda of the new U.S. administration. Customers, investors, and stakeholders are increasingly making consequential decisions to respond to the climate crisis. For corporate sustainability and energy managers, the need to eliminate a company’s greenhouse gas emissions in the next 10 to 20 years is becoming the norm. In operations that use large amounts of natural gas, this will be no small feat.

About the Author: Peter Garforth

On the electricity side, GHG indexes are falling quickly caused by the reduction in coal generation along with the growing portion of renewable and gas generation. On the positive side, the company’s GHG footprint benefits from the utilities’ actions. On the negative side, efficiency measures mainly aimed at reducing power costs will have a smaller GHG benefit.

This trend on overall decarbonization of power is shifting the focus of GHG reduction to natural gas. For many years, gas has been correctly positioned as a bridging fuel to a lower carbon energy system. Now, on a global basis, gas is as big a source of emissions as coal, and only slightly less so than oil, which is mostly used for transportation.

The corporate energy manager has a number of possible tools that can be used to dramatically reduce natural gas emissions. How these tools combine will vary depending on the end-uses, the facility’s location, and of course the company’s overall sustainability targets and future business plans.

The first tool is the gas supply itself, which is often overlooked. Today’s natural gas networks have GHG indexes of about 200 kg CO2 for each megawatt of energy content.  Many gas utilities are exploring ways to reduce by mixing in biogas from various types of biowaste and hydrogen produced using renewable electricity. This alone may reduce network indexes by as much as 30% over a decade or two. Obviously, the company needs to understand and factor in the local gas utility’s plans.

The next tool is comprehensive investment in efficiency programs that substantially reduce the need for gas. Due to the low cost of gas relative to electricity, measures are often deferred on financial grounds, and approved investments often highlight the tangible value of emissions reductions.

The intrusiveness of gas-oriented efficiency programs also cause them to be deferred. Production lines need to be significantly reconfigured. Building envelopes typically need to be reinsulated and new windows installed, among other deep retrofit measures. Senior leadership will need to be open to encourage major inter-departmental cooperation.

The third tool is possible fuel and thermal source switching for lower carbon options. This will be highly dependent on the plant location. Are there realistic options to source locally produced biogas or fuel grade biomass? Are there substantial and reliable sources of waste heat within the site or from neighbors? Fuel switching will require new infrastructure and supply contacts and will demand a multi-year strategic perspective.

Fourth on the list is electrification. Before considering this, it is critical to confirm that the local power supply is on a reliable and predictable path to low carbon content. If this is the case, there may be a viable case to substitute natural gas-fired processes for electrical alternatives. This will rarely be easy, will almost certainly disrupt normal operations, and is likely to require new skills and significant investments.

Keep in mind electrification will increase power demands from transportation, which may challenge the power utility’s ability to maintain a low-carbon generation mix.

The next tool is cooperation. Many decarbonization tools become technically easier and more cost effective if they are scaled up. Multiple facilities can cooperate to share energy supply, waste recovery, fuel switching, and even efficiency and conversion investments, to increase mutual benefits.

The path to zero greenhouse gas emissions for any company will be tough; for those using large amounts of natural gas it will be even tougher. It will change the creativity and cooperative demands on the energy manager, whose job is more strategically pivotal than ever before.

Energy Expert

This article is part of our monthly Energy Expert column. Read more from Peter Garforth.

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