Blog | 16th Jan, 2024

'Green gas' myths debunked: Why hydrogen and bio-methane can't save the gas network

With their massive profits on the line, the gas industry has been spreading dodgy claims about ‘green’ or ‘renewable gas’. Here's why their claims don’t stack up.

The gas that gets pumped into homes across Victoria is mostly made up of methane — it’s expensive, it’s a powerful greenhouse gas (with over 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide), and it’s harmful to our health when burnt indoors.

In Victoria it’s an especially large problem. Because we burn far more methane gas than any other state it is responsible for 17% of our climate pollution, and it’s only getting more expensive as supplies in the Bass Strait run out.

As awareness of these issues grows, households and small business (which represent a whopping 50% of our gas consumption) are starting to switch to new and efficient electric appliances.

But with their profits on the line, the gas industry is trying to convince Victorians to stick with their old gas appliances with misleading advertising about ‘green’ or ‘renewable’ alternatives like biomethane or hydrogen.

Often these misleading ads promote experiments where they have blended tiny amounts of these alternatives into the gas network, creating a false impression that they can scale it up and make the gas network less polluting. Sadly, this lacks any real credibility.

The gas industry has been repeatedly caught spreading misleading sustainability claims.

So let’s look at the details these gas corporations don’t want you to know …

WHY HYDROGEN WONT WORK

Hydrogen is a gas that can be produced by splitting water molecules. This process is called electrolysis and can be powered by renewable energy. In many applications, such as fuel cells, using hydrogen only produces water and oxygen as byproducts.

Great! But unfortunately, the idea of using hydrogen to replace methane in the gas network is not just unlikely, it’s a complete fantasy.

Here’s why …

1
It still produces toxic indoor air pollution

Hydrogen is only clean when used in applications like fuel cells. When it is burnt, hydrogen produces even more toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx) than methane. [1] These pollutants damage the lungs and increase the risk and severity of respiratory infections and asthma.

2
It’s too expensive

Hydrogen is far too expensive for household use, and even under the most generous assumptions it will only become cost-competitive after 2045. Meanwhile electric alternatives are cheaper and less polluting to run right now. [2]

3
It’s a waste

A valuable resource like hydrogen should be used where there are no other alternatives – such as shipping and steel production. Using it for things like home heating — where there are cheaper and more efficient alternatives — makes no sense.

4
Existing gas appliances would have to be replaced anyway

Traditional gas appliances would not be safe to use with hydrogen, so gas companies would need to coordinate the replacement or alteration of every single appliance in an area before increasing the amount of hydrogen above 5% ... Householders and businesses would foot the bill for this, and any missed appliances could cause an explosion.

5
It would require an overhaul of the entire gas network

Hydrogen is a smaller and more flammable molecule than methane, that means it can leak more easily and increase the risk of explosions. It also reacts with steel and causes ‘embrittlement’. [3] So to blend any more than about 5% hydrogen the entire gas network would need a massive upgrade. Households and businesses would have to pay for this through their bills and, perversely, the owners of the gas network would make larger profits – which is why they love the idea so much.

You can learn more about why hydrogen is not a viable alternative for the gas network in these fantastic articles by Forbes and RenewEconomy.

WHY BIO-METHANE IS NOT A SOLUTION

Unlike our existing gas supply which is sucked out of the ocean floor and fracked from underneath farmland, bio-methane is produced by placing organic materials (like agricultural waste) in large ‘digester’ facilities where it is broken down by bacteria.

Considered on its own, bio-methane production is a renewable process. But the idea that we could use this at a large scale in the existing gas network suffers from three fatal flaws:

1
We couldn’t produce anywhere near enough

Most credible estimates say biomethane could only replace a small fraction (less than 10%) of our existing gas needs. [4]

2
It’s too expensive

Bio-methane is relatively expensive to produce. In Europe, where there is a much larger biomethane industry, the cost is around two to three times higher than Victoria’s current wholesale gas price. [5]

So while biomethane will be useful solution for some industries where it is difficult to electrify, the idea we can use it to supply our existing household gas network is simply not credible.

In summary

Using alternative gases to replace methane in the gas network is simply not feasible.

But this doesn’t stop the gas industry. Instead, they shamelessly promote their experiments with ‘blending’ tiny amounts of these alternative gases to create the impression that it can be scaled up in the future. But their real motivation is preserving their profits and delaying the inevitable switch away from methane gas.

The real solution to cutting pollution, protecting our health and lowering bills is to switch to clean, efficient electric appliances.

The big challenge for electrification is the upfront cost of the appliances – which not everyone can afford. That’s why we’re pushing for solutions that will make it easy and affordable for everyone to start the switch. Learn more and get involved here >>

Have more questions about gas and electrification?

FOOTNOTES

  1. https://www.cleanegroup.org/hydrogen-hype-in-the-air/
  2. https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/Getting-off-gas-why-how-and-who-should-pay.pdf, p.11.
  3. https://reneweconomy.com.au/hydrogen-expert-says-blending-green-fuel-into-gas-network-an-expensive-waste/
  4. Households and businesses across the east coast currently use about 580 petajoules of methane gas each year. But, given the competing needs for biomethane in other sectors, it’s likely that only 50 petajoules (or less) would be available for use in the gas network. https://arena.gov.au/assets/2021/11/australia-bioenergy-roadmap-report.pdf, p18.
  5. For biomethane to be cost-effective it needs waste streams that are large, centrally contained, and located near existing gas pipeline s. According to Infrastructure Victoria, the cost of biomethane could range from around $7 to a whopping $50 per gigajoule https://www.infrastructurevictoria.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Towards-2050-Gas-infrastructure-in-a-net-zero-emissions-economy_FINAL-REPORT.pdf, p.120.