When the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, it’s natural gas that keeps the lights on and our essential services powered

Ireland must first ensure a secure and diverse energy supply says Edwina Nyhan of Gas Networks Ireland

Edwina Nyhan, Director of Strategy and Regulation with Gas Networks Ireland

What's your name and what position do you hold?

Edwina Nyhan, Director of Strategy and Regulation at Gas Networks Ireland.

Tell us about Gas Networks Ireland and your day to day responsibilities?

Gas Networks Ireland operates Ireland’s €2.7bn, 14,617km national gas network, which is considered one of the safest and most modern gas networks in the world.

The gas network is the cornerstone of Ireland’s energy system, securely supplying more than 30% of Ireland’s total energy, including 40% of all heating and almost 50% of the country’s electricity generation.

Over 710,000 Irish homes and businesses, including many of the country’s largest industries rely on gas for their high heat processes, trust Ireland’s gas network to provide efficient and reliable energy to meet their heating, cooking, manufacturing and transport needs.

The gas network also plays a critical role in supporting the resilience and security of supply of Ireland’s energy system as a whole. This is because gas generation is flexible, which enables it to support intermittent renewable generation. So when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, gas ensures that the lights stay on.

By working to replace natural gas with renewable gases, such as biomethane and hydrogen, and complementing intermittent renewable electricity, we are supporting Ireland’s journey to a cleaner energy future.

My role is to lead on defining Gas Networks Ireland’s strategy, sustainability focus and regulatory affairs agenda, in addition to managing our stakeholder and policy environment.

How is the current geopolitical crisis and the possibility of energy supply issues impacting your business?

We are closely monitoring the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and are in regular communication with key external stakeholders including the Government and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU).

Approximately 25% of Ireland’s gas is supplied domestically from the Corrib gas fields and small amount of renewable gas also comes onto the network at Cush, Co. Kildare. The balance comes via Ireland’s interconnectors with the UK.

Gas supply into the UK is considered one of the most secure coming from multiple sources including the North Sea, Norway, LNG import capacity, storage withdrawals and interconnectors to Belgium and the Netherlands.

However, we must focus on enhancing Ireland’s long-term energy security and diversity.

We very much welcome both the European Commission’s new REPowerEU plan to reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels by diversifying gas supplies and speeding up the roll-out of renewable gases, as well as its draft legislative proposal to increase Europe’s security of gas supply published last month.

We were also pleased to see that the Government’s National Energy Security Framework published this month which highlights the need for supports to establish a biomethane industry and also the need to prioritise the development of a national hydrogen strategy.

What are the key challenges for Ireland’s low carbon transition and where can the gas network help?

Climate change is an urgent global challenge and we are committed to playing a central role in Ireland’s low carbon transition by decarbonising the gas network in line with Irish and EU environmental policy.

While natural gas emits 40% less CO₂ than coal and 22% less CO₂ than oil, Ireland must transition to more sustainable alternatives to meet its climate action targets and enhance our energy security.

The primary challenge for policy makers is in balancing the energy trilemma of security, sustainability and affordability and an integrated gas and electricity system is key.

We must first ensure a secure and diverse energy supply for Ireland. When the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, it’s natural gas that keeps the lights on and our essential services powered.

This flexible and reliable back up will be key to supporting the development of intermittent renewable electricity and ensuring a secure energy supply for Ireland. Minister Ryan himself recently said: “We need gas back up for wind and that gas will switch over to hydrogen”.

Renewable gases, gas storage and new gas technologies all provide Ireland with an opportunity to enhance its energy security via a diversified supply portfolio of indigenous and imported gas.

In terms of affordability, leveraging existing infrastructure, such as Ireland’s national gas network, itself a renewables ready decarbonisation solution, will allow us to achieve our climate action targets at the lowest cost and with least disruption.

Biomethane made from farm and food waste for example, is fully compatible with the existing gas network and no further investment in the network is required in the short to medium term.

For those who can’t afford a deep retrofit or electric alternatives, connecting to the gas network offers an affordable way for those using higher poluting fuels, such as oil and coal, to reduce their carbon footprint immediately and enjoy further emissions reductions as the volume of renewable gas in the network increases.

Finally, when it comes to sustainability, all low and zero emissions energy must be on the table to enhance our diversity and security of supply. Renewable gases, such as carbon neutral biomethane and zero carbon hydrogen, are widely recognised across Europe as a key part of the solution.

Decarbonisation of the gas network and increased integration of gas and electricity systems has to be the goal if we are to achieve net zero by 2050, solve the problem of hard to reach, high energy intensity sectors, and provide storage and system security at an affordable level.

Tell us more about renewable gases? Where are the opportunities for Ireland and what work are you undertaking in this space?

Replacing natural gas with renewable gases and investing in new technologies such as compressed natural gas (CNG) for transport, will support emissions reductions across every sector of the Irish economy, including those that are traditionally difficult to decarbonise such as transport, agriculture, industry, heating and reliable power generation.

Biomethane is a carbon neutral renewable gas that can be made from farm and food waste through a process known as anaerobic digestion. It can not only decarbonise the gas network, but significantly reduce agricultural emissions.

Ireland’s 2021 Climate Action Plan has an initial target of 1.6TWh of biomethane by 2030, which equates to circa 3% of gas in the network, with a commitment from the Government to explore opportunities to increase production. However, we believe greater ambition is possible.

The European Commission has previously identified Ireland as having the highest potential per capita to produce biomethane and the recent Sustainability of Biomethane Production in Ireland report produced by Devenish Nutrition and KPMG Sustainable Futures confirmed this, concluding that agriculturally produced biomethane can be delivered sustainably and at scale to decarbonise Ireland’s energy system, without reducing the national herd, disrupting food production, intensifying agricultural activities or impacting on biodiversity.

We first introduced domestically produced biomethane into the national network in 2019, via the country’s first dedicated renewable gas injection point in Cush, Co. Kildare and just this month received Government finding for a second renewable gas injection facility in Mitchelstown, Co Cork that can take renewable gas from up to 20 local producers – enough to power 64,000 homes – while also supporting the decarbonisation of local agriculture.

As well as reducing emissions, a domestic biomethane industry would provide significant opportunities for local communities from the sale of biomethane, feedstock used in production and a bio-fertiliser digestate that is a by-product of the process.

Hydrogen is also very sustainable. It can be made from renewable electricity and stored until needed, making it an attractive option to decarbonise Ireland’s energy system and a strong example of how greater integration between Ireland’s gas and electricity networks can support a low carbon economy.

When it comes to hydrogen, the 2021 Climate Action Plan’s Annex of Actions and this month’s National Energy Security Framework highlighted the need to develop a hydrogen strategy for Ireland.

While there is currently no hydrogen on Ireland’s gas network, it is believed blends of up to 20% could be transported on the existing infrastructure today.

We recently completed construction of a research and development facility in Dublin where we are working with research partners from UCD’s Energy Institute to develop a detailed hydrogen technical strategy and ensure that the existing gas network is capable of safely transporting and storing both blended and 100% hydrogen into the future.

As well as homes, business and industry, gas can also play a central role in reducing transport emissions, offering fleet operators a more sustainable choice than diesel and petrol.

CNG is a proven and reliable alternative to diesel that is particularly suitable for use in long-haul trucks, heavy passenger vehicles and other commercial vehicles where electric solutions are not a viable option.

CNG can deliver well-to-wheel carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reductions of up to 23% (CENEX, 2019) and nitrous oxide (NOx) by up to 50% (UK Department of Transport, 2018) compared to diesel.

Again, as the volume of renewable gas in the network increases, vehicles refuelling from the gas network will increasingly reduce their carbon footprint without changing a thing, driving continually more sustainable supply chains and industries across the country.

Last year, we opened the country’s third and fourth public, fast-fill CNG stations. We are currently working on a fifth station in Co Cavan and there is a further eight in planning and development.

With learnings from across Europe and the UK as well as insights from our own research and development facility, we’re preparing to transform the gas network and ultimately Ireland’s entire energy system to deliver a cleaner energy future in line with national and EU policy.

Edwina Nyhan, Director of Strategy and Regulation at Gas Networks Ireland will be speaking at The National Energy Summit 2022 tomorrow at Croke Park, Dublin, Tickets are still available at Energysummit.ie