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IEA's Wrong Path to Net-Zero

Two major new studies have been released recently by high-profile energy research groups. The International Energy Agency (IEA) report (Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector) and Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) (Investing in the US Natural Gas Pipeline System to Support Net Zero Targets) separately addressed the role of natural gas, and its infrastructure, in a path to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Their conclusions couldn't be more starkly different. The IEA report's headline prescription was "no investment in new oil and gas projects beyond 2021", which predictably garnered extensive media coverage. In contrast, CGEP's was "invest in the U.S. natural gas pipeline system to support net-zero targets."

IEA calls for a policy-driven end to fossil energy, while Columbia sees an orderly market-driven transition to zero-carbon fuels - prominently hydrogen produced from natural gas (with carbon capture) as the key feedstock. The natural gas pipeline network is repurposed and expanded to deliver it, and new networks are built to carry captured carbon dioxide to storage or use.

We think Columbia has laid out a plausible scenario, while IEA paints an impossible, off-the-rails picture that is both unnecessary and would lead to global energy chaos, along with immense social disruption, energy insecurity and higher energy costs.

In sharp contrast, the Columbia prescription envisions a smooth transition that builds on existing physical assets and energy resources, and leverages our tremendous workforce and immense investments in existing infrastructure. We offer the following brief summaries (with our emphasis added in boldface) of the two report's conclusions. Take a read and tell us what you think.

Here are the factors IEA cites as necessary for a path to a net-zero energy system by 2050:

  • Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there must be no new oil and gas fields approved for development.
  • While the global population grows by 2 billion people - up 25% from today's 7.9 billion - global energy demand will shrink by 8% from today, thanks to efficiencies and unspecified "behavioural changes". This will happen even as "access to energy is extended to all", including the billion or so who today have no access to electricity. (We think this demand decrease is highly unlikely. Dr. Scott Tinker, Director of the University of Texas' Bureau of Economic Geology, points out that his energy-efficient refrigerator annually consumes nine time the amount of electricity as the average resident of Ethiopia.)
  • Fossil fuels fall from supplying about 80% of global energy today, to just over 20% by 2050, with natural gas consumption falling by 55% and oil demand falling by 75%. Coal effectively disappears as an energy source.
  • Two-thirds of total energy in 2050 is from wind, solar, bioenergy, hydro and geothermal, with solar increasing 20-fold and wind increasing 11-fold from today's levels.
  • Ninety percent of electricity is generated by wind, solar and nuclear.
  • Sales of cars with internal combustion engines ends by 2035; by 2050 all cars on the road worldwide will run on electricity or fuel cells.

    Columbia, on the other hand, paints a plausible picture centered on an orderly market-driven transition to zero carbon energy that relies on major new investments in natural gas infrastructure. We quote the key passages from their study's summary because it can't be said better:
    "The fact that hydrogen has a lower energy density relative to natural gas means that about three times the volume of hydrogen needs to be delivered to provide the equivalent heat content as natural gas. Even a 20 percent hydrogen blend rate in our current natural gas system would actually utilize approximately 40 percent more capacity than is currently available in the US pipeline network to provide the equivalent energy.

    "In this and similar cases, additional pipeline capacity would need to be built to transport hydrogen, especially when hydrogen production is not located near existing natural gas pipelines. The existing gas network and additional capacity designed for zero-carbon fuel use should be viewed as complementary tools in meeting a net-zero future.

    "Fortifying and upgrading the system could prepare the existing infrastructure to transport zero-carbon fuels as they become available and, in the meantime, reduce harmful methane leaks from natural gas.

    "Studies by energy agencies, universities, and the industry that model future US natural gas consumption consistently show continued use of natural gas for at least the next 30 years, even in scenarios where the country achieves net-zero targets by midcentury. There is no quick replacement for gas in the US energy mix. And for many of the needs natural gas currently meets, the eventual replacement may be zero-carbon gaseous fuels (e.g., hydrogen, biogas). These fuels may play a significant role in supporting reliability and making the energy transition more affordable - but they, too, will require a pipeline network for efficient delivery to markets and end users.

    "In the near term, replacement of older pipelines and distribution mains in the existing natural gas pipeline network, as well as regulations on methane leaks and repairs, can cost-effectively reduce cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. Over the next one to two decades, the existing system can be retrofitted to be compatible with low- and zero-carbon fuels (e.g., hydrogen blends) while significant carbon capture and sequestration capacity can be added to existing natural gas-fired power plants and industries. With a midcentury net-zero target, the US has time to test and adapt the natural gas system for increased blending of hydrogen and develop ways to reach the presumed 20 percent threshold of hydrogen blending into the existing network, as well as find ways to increase this threshold. By midcentury, the gas grid could ultimately be transporting 100 percent carbon-free fuels through a combination of natural gas with CCS, biomethane, and zero-carbon hydrogen.

    "Modernizing and adapting the US natural gas pipeline network will require a concerted effort and significant short-term investments, but making use of the infrastructure already in place could offer a prime route for speeding up and cost-effectively making the considerable changes needed to fully decarbonize the energy sector - while also enabling a just transition for communities that have invested in and rely upon these systems."

    This all points to the conclusion that if the U.S energy system is to transition to net-zero emissions by 2050, that process will be rich with opportunity for companies and workers that build and maintain the infrastructure for production, transmission and consumption of the fuels that that power our economy and deliver affordable and reliable energy.

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