The only increasingly consumed fossil fuel in the world is natural gas

Most of the gas emissions come from the burning of CO2; RCGI pursues technologies for pre-salt that can help avoid GHG emissions.

Natural gas consumption has been growing worldwide, in both developed and underdeveloped countries, with the latter having natural gas as the only fossil fuel that is growing. This was emphasized by the participants in the Sustainable Gas Research & Innovation Conference 2017. In the world’s energy matrix, only two categories show a tendency for growth: natural gas and renewable energy sources. A common opinion heard among the participants is that there is no single solution for the dilemma of “demand for energy vs. GHG emissions”. It is necessary to look to a myriad of technologies and trends, which range from biofuels to carbon capture and storage (CCS). The event took place on September 19 and 20, at the University of São Paulo (USP), in São Paulo.

“Estimates indicate that natural gas will be significantly important. Therefore, it is necessary to study new technologies and adapt them to the needs,” said José Goldemberg, President of the Foundation for Research Support of the State of São Paulo (FAPESP) and first keynote speaker of the conference, organized by the FAPESP Shell Research Centre for Gas Innovation (RCGI) and by the Sustainable Gas Institute (SGI), headquartered in the United Kingdom. He pointed out that it is common to fear adopting new technologies, because they are more expensive, to start with, but he remembered the case of ethanol. “The price of ethanol dropped from US$ 550 per cubic meter, in 1980, to US$ 200, in 2004.”

Brazil will likely enter the decade of 2020 with a growing production of natural gas, due to pre-salt. Among the fossil fuels, natural gas emits the least GHG. For that reason, it is regarded as an important transition fuel to a low carbon economy. However, all of the experts agree that it is necessary to create a market, make transport and commercialization feasible, and create a culture for the utilization of natural gas throughout the country. Exportation is only a remote idea and there is a consensus that it is needful to take advantage of this energy source here, instead of reinjecting it into the oil wells, as is being done. “Brazil reinjects underground the equivalent of 5% of the North American production of shale gas,” said Júlio Meneghini, RCGI’s Scientific Director.

Besides lowering emissions, it will be necessary to mitigate them. In the specific case of pre-salt gas, which is rich in CO2, it is also necessary to make it cleaner, purifying it for utilization, which requires technologies for separating and storing CO2 – that could also be of great importance to decarbonization initiatives. Rob Littel, from Shell, emphasized the company’s focus on decarbonization strategies and on CCS. “The challenge of emissions is an existential one for a company like Shell. The amount of CO2 that we have to capture is on the order of Gigatons.”

According to him, the change will have to affect all sectors of the economy. “Power generation and the construction industry are the easiest sectors to decarbonize. Transportation and industry in general are more complicated.” Littel also pointed out what he called the “dilemma” of the carbon market. “The climate problem is real, but it is still cheap to cause emissions. Carbon credits are bought at very low prices on the market.”

Meneghini believes that the use of fossil fuels can still string along for a relatively extensive time period. “We will have fossil fuels for a long time, yet. We need to do CCS and, in the case of natural gas, it is important to separate CO2 from CH4.” He mentioned that the RCGI is working on two projects for separating these gases: a supersonic separator and a ceramic membrane.

Paul Balcombe, a researcher associated with the SGI who spoke about super emitters of methane, emphasized that most of the natural gas emissions come from the burning of CO2. “Methane emissions are extremely variable, because they depend on many factors, including the super emitters: these represent 5% of the equipment, but answer for 50% of the total methane emissions.”

Policies – The dynamics of the event interspersed oral presentations by researchers of the two institutions, guided by a chairman, and presentations with digital posters outside of the auditorium. On the first day, the RCGI presented the projects of the Energy and Economy Policies Program. “All of the projects of this program focus on helping the State to create a market for natural gas in Brazil, because we do not currently have one,” said Edmilson Moutinho, Program Coordinator and Professor at USP’s Energy and Environment Institute (IEE/USP). “But we can help Shell in its demand for CO2 abatement, contributing to addressing challenges both in the CCS area and from other different perspectives.”

At the end of the day, a panel discussion brought together the experts Adam Hawkes (SGI Deputy Director), David Daniels (Chief Energy Modeler for the U.S. Energy Information Administration), Li Zheng (Professor in the Thermal Energy Department of Tsinghua University), and Júlio Meneghini, Scientific Director of the RCGI, and invited participants Plínio Nastari (of the National Council of Energy Policies) and Álvaro Prata (of the Department of Technology, Development, and Innovation of MCTI).

“The biggest challenge to the expansion of natural gas in Brazil is not the technology. It is our ability to resolve the fiscal policies and fiscal legislation,” Nastari stated. He also called attention to Brazil’s potential for producing and utilizing biomethane. “Our production potential of biomethane is estimated to be between 71 and 77 million cubic meters, five of which come from urban municipal garbage. Biomethane could be the solution for regions where energy is still very expensive, like the North region, for example.”

David Daniels, from EIA, also stressed the importance of policies and of following up on them. “Policies are not just a government thing. They are a society, a business thing…. They are a development process based on the information we have at hand and on the objectives we plan on achieving. And, once they are implemented, they must be monitored.”

Prata emphasized R&D financing in Brazil. “The percentage of the GDP that we allocate for Research and Development – which is 1.2% – must increase. It is interesting to note that public investments in research represent 0.7% of the GDP, which is very close to what the public sector invests in Korea for the same item: 0.9%. But, here, this is not enough to attract the private sector to invest in research. It would be very welcome.”

Besides researchers from the two institutes and decision makers, on the first day of the conference, participants also included the Secretary of Mining and Energy of the State of São Paulo, João Carlos de Souza Meirelles; the Vice Chancellor of the University of São Paulo (USP), Vahan Agopyan; and the Provost for Research of USP, José Eduardo Krieger.

Scenarios – The second day began with David Daniels and Li Zheng, Professor of the Department of Thermal Energy of Tsinghua University, as keynote speakers. Daniels presented data from International Energy Outlook 2017, which is an annual publication of the EIA, with projections of future scenarios regarding the impacts of implementing policies in the energy area. “It is not our intention to predict what will happen, but to give some idea of what could happen if the policies that are being generated to ensure the production of energy and, at the same time reduce emissions, are put into practice.”

The report is based on the presupposition of worldwide energy consumption on the order of 575 quadrillion BTUs in 2015 going to 736 quadrillion BTUs in 2040, for an increase of 28%. “More than 60% of the increased energy consumption around the year 2040 will come from countries that are not a part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), especially from Asia, including China and India. Even if the residential demand and the transportation sector grow more quickly, the industrial sector will still be responsible for more than 50% of the energy consumption in 2040.”

Daniels says he sees no clear transition in the transportation sector, with the adoption of electric vehicles. “People move by following policies. While there are no clear incentive policies for adopting electric cars, we believe that there will be no big impact. Our projections show that, in 2050, only 20% of the fleet will be electric-powered.”

Zheng Li, once again, stated that natural gas plays a crucial role in China, substituting coal. According to him, the plan is to increase the share of natural gas in the Chinese energy matrix from the current 5.9% to 15% by 2030.

“China has made great progress in the transition to a low-carbon energy source. Over the past five years, the installed capacity of solar energy increased 20 times, and nuclear and wind nearly three times. In 2015, energy generated by non-fossil sources came to 27%. The non-fossil sources in the composition of total primary energy came to 11.8%. We what it to go to 15% in 2020 and 20% in 2030. However, coal is still dominant and critical for transition.”

He says that the country did a big job generating power with coal. “Our coal-powered thermal-electric plants are the world’s most efficient. But much of our coal is used in industry and residences, and there, there are much higher emissions.” Li says that it is a big challenge to approve, it is a big challenge to provide clean energy to the rural Chinese population, which is convenient and low-carbon. “Inside the rural areas, people use much coal, above all for cooking, and there are places where it is not viable to place pipelines. In those places, I think that biogas could play an important role.”

Then, Professor Rita M.B. Alves, vice-coordinator of RCGI’s Physicochemistry Program, made a brief presentation of the projects in her program. After lunch, the SGI made three more presentations. It was the turn of Kris Anderson, Velisa Vesovic, and Cristiano Borges, SGI researchers and members of SGI’s Department of Sciences, and members of the Department of Earth Sciences and Engineering of the Imperial College.

“Approximately 85% do world’s energy supply is furnished by fossil fuel for warming motors. About 60% of that energy is lost as heat during the process of generating energy. Since the annual total consumption of energy from fossil fuels is 486 exajoules, that means that there are about 320 exajoules of available residual heat,” Anderson said, and presented a techno-economic analysis of thermal-electric generators for heat recovery. He explained it via a series of case studies that are being done to recover the energy that is wasted in the form of heat.

The projects of the Engineering Program, which had Professor Emílio Silva as its Chairman, took up the rest of the afternoon. At the end of the day, Sara Giarola, one of the coordinators of the SGI modelling team; Daniel Crow, also on the SGI modelling team; Sara Budinis, chemical engineer and an SGI researcher; Ivan Garcia Kerdan, SGI assistant researcher and from the Chemical Engineering Department of the Imperial College talked about MUSE (Modular Energy System Simulation Environment). “This is a tool that gives a global perspective of opportunities and challenges for the energy industry, in which 28 regions are included, representing the world,” Giarola said in summary.