Green myths about natural gas The evening before the expected release of new methane regulations by the European Commission, the Gastivists Collective and local ally Tegengas organized a “guerrilla projection” action at the Vilvoorde gas plant on the outskirts of Brussels. Photo: Gastivists Collective via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Green myths about natural gas

Although natural gas is presented as a good alternative to coal, such a replacement is likely to significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions. Bulgarian and international experts united around this message during an online workshop entitled “Myths about fossil gas: a bridge or a dead end to a fair energy transition?” Organized by the environmental association Za Zemiata on 30 November 2021, the event also featured discussions on other possible solutions in the transition to a carbon-neutral economy. 

Fake solution 

In the last few years, the industry has been actively lobbying for fossil gas to be recognized as a solution in the transition to a greener economy, but trying to present blue fuel as an alternative seems doomed to failure. According to Eilidh Robb from FoEE (Friends of the Earth Europe), the transition from coal to gas and hydrogen is not a way out and the so-called hydrogen storage method (blue hydrogen) is not a working solution. It is just a false promise of an alternative that would lead to being “locked into” using gas for at least 40 years, to justify the infrastructure investment required, while investments in renewables are slowed down. 

Experiments in this direction have also been seen among the Bulgarian trade unions, which are actively presenting this method as an alternative fuel to the thermal power plants (TPPs) in Galabovo and Radnevo, which are currently operating with lignite. The problem comes not only from potential new environmental threats, but also from the fact that at least 125 km of pipelines need to be built to deliver gas to thermal power plant workstations. 

Time bomb 

While carbon dioxide is mainly discussed in discussions about the greenhouse effect, methane is one of the main dangers to the planet in terms of overheating. Released into the atmosphere, it stays there for up to 12 years and is 10 times more powerful when it comes to warming. Currently, about a quarter of the increase in average temperatures caused by human activity is due to methane, said Enrico Donda, an expert at FWAE (Food & Water Action Europe). 

The main methane generators in the world are agriculture (40%), energy based on oil and gas (38%) and the decay of organic waste (20%). A hidden threat that could lead to even higher levels of methane in the atmosphere is the warming of peat fields in Siberia, where large amounts of natural methane are now frozen. If global warming as a result of human activity continues, nature will also add a shock dose of greenhouse gas, which will cause an uncontrollable thermal reaction. We are thus facing an unpredictable scenario for the planet’s biodiversity. 

According to Donda, there are many green misconceptions about methane. There is no reliable information on methane leaks during pipeline transport. The European Union is the world’s largest importer of natural gas, mainly from Russia, with the EU contributing 5% to global gas pollution. There is a strategy in place to reduce natural gas consumption in the EU by 35% to 37% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. But according to recent leaks from the EC, these targets are unlikely to be met, with a reduction of only 30% more likely to be pursued, the expert summed up. 

The World Climate Conference in Glasgow (COP26) decided to reduce methane emissions by up to 30%. But the agreement lacks the signatures of China, India and Russia, which together currently contribute 35% to global methane emissions. In addition, ambitious targets have not been set for limiting methane emissions from industrial livestock, which is still the world’s largest producer of methane released into the air, Donda said. 

The transition from coal to gas and hydrogen is not a way out, experts say. Photo: Za Zemiata

Gas projects in Bulgaria 

In 2021, gas prices jumped by about 300%. This affects not only economic life, but also the planned gas projects in Bulgaria, said Rory Forster, an energy and climate expert at For the Earth and the CEE Bankwatch Network. He highlighted some myths about fossil gas, its link to high energy prices, and gasification plans for the Maritza East 2 complex of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan. 

According to Forster, Bulgaria depends almost entirely on Russian gas, and crises are yet to come. A project to double the capacity of the Chiren gas storage facility is currently being prepared. However, this will lead to serious environmental risks and endanger wildlife habitats. The gas interconnector between Greece and Bulgaria with a length of 182 km is also under construction. However, there are already numerous signals pointing to poisoned groundwater and running water in the Eastern Rhodopes along its route. According to plans that emerged during negotiations to form a new coalition government, a new Eastern Rhodopes Nature Park is to be announced in part of the area. This would create new points of conflict between the construction of gas infrastructure and the conservation of local biodiversity. 

Foster drew attention to two examples of already +-built gas infrastructures that do not lead to any concrete benefits. Almost EUR 500 million has been spent on the construction of the first stage of the BRUA pipeline (a gas pipeline that should connect Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria as an alternative route for Azeri gas supplies). The amount spent on the construction of the Eastring Pipeline so far is similar. 

In the National Plan for Reconstruction and Sustainability, which was submitted to the EC on 15 October 2021, activities are planned for the construction of gas conversion of the TPP in Maritza East with a capacity of 1.5 gigawatts. For this purpose, EUR 185 million has been provided, of which nearly EUR 20 million is from the Bulgarian state budget. Instead of investing additional sums in the controversial blue hydrogen technology, which involves building at least 125 km of pipes in the Radnevo and Galabovo areas, Rory Foster recommended an alternative solution. According to him, the region is suitable for large solar projects on the site of old coal deposits, which need to be reclaimed in any event. This would provide long-term employment for some current miners and energy workers, and the cumulative effect would lead to a cleaner natural environment and less dependence on natural gas supplies at an affordable social price — all key aspects in the transition to greener energy. 

The expert also gave as an example some good practices from another coal mining region in the country, where coal is already running out. In 2021, two organizations independently created classrooms for new green technologies in two vocational schools in the city of Pernik. 

On 27 September 2021, a new solar laboratory was opened at the Hristo Botev Vocational School of Engineering and Energy in Pernik. At the suggestion of Greenpeace Bulgaria, the most modern equipment for the use of sunlight and its conversion into heat energy was delivered and installed for the training of young people in the speciality of “Heat Engineering”. 

On 10 October 2021, the first classroom in electrical engineering was opened, which was renovated and equipped with the support of CEZ Bulgaria. It is located in the Architect Yordan Milanov Vocational High School of Engineering and Construction in Pernik. The equipment of classrooms in electrical engineering is an initiative of CEZ in support of vocational education and the creation of qualified personnel for the Bulgarian power industry. 

The aim of both initiatives is to create a desire among adolescents to study modern energy technologies in a pleasant and friendly learning environment. This could motivate them to choose the path of future professional development in building modern energy solutions in line with a greener future for the country. 

Energy independence in rural areas 

The main focus of the event was the problematic situation in Bulgarian villages, where there is virtually no alternative to the use of wood and coal for heating both private houses and public buildings. The experts agreed on several possible solutions. First of all, legislation should be changed to allow for the installation of solar panels on the roofs, which would be used to supply heat pumps for heating. This could be combined with small renewable energy installations, which are a better alternative for the windier winter months when there is less sunshine. Experts recommended working towards building smart engineering solutions that connect not only individual houses but also entire rural communities. This will lead to economies of scale and greater efficiency of investments for energy independence. Similar examples already exist in European countries, such as the first almost completely energy-independent municipality, Jungersheim in the Alsace region of France. 

The energy independence of Bulgarian villages is key in the transition to greener energy. Currently, about 25% of Bulgarians live in rural areas, which generates about 10% of all harmful greenhouse gas emissions in the country, as over 95% of rural houses are heated by solid fuel. In some places, the possibility of natural gas being an alternative to solid fuel is already being advertised. However, more innovative solutions are needed to balance comfort, nature conservation, and new advances in energy engineering. 

Strategic decisions beyond the myths of gas 

A historic decision was made during the Glasgow Climate Conference (COP26). Leaders of 20 countries said they will stop funding fossil fuels in other countries by the end of 2022 and will refocus their efforts on renewable energy sources. Among them are representatives of four of the world’s largest economies: the United States, Canada, Britain and Italy. In 2020, the United States, Britain and Italy had publicly announced that they would finance USD 7 billion worth of fossil gas production in Mozambique. Following the new promise made at COP26, funding for this type of project should be discontinued. 

This lacks the signatures of several major supporters of oil, coal and fossil gas: Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, France, the World Bank and the African Development Bank. Bulgaria has also not signed the document, even going in the opposite direction and planning new gas investments in the Recovery Plan and the Fifth List of Energy Projects of Common EU Interest. 

In an interview with BNR, economist Lucy Naydenova commented on the topic in terms of strategic decisions that must be made by major energy players in the transition to a greener economy. She has been working at the African Regional Development Bank since 2018 and is now focused on creating a new mechanism to finance adaptation to the negative effects of climate change. According to her, the Bulgarian state is currently facing a rare opportunity to transform its innovative energy into the creation of new green energy technologies to replace the obsolete coal-fired power plants in the Mari basin. She did not comment on gas as an alternative at all; but she did hint that the world’s major energy players are already adjusting their strategic visions to newer green solutions, which is probably becoming more cumbersome than expected. However, this gives a chance to the smaller players, including Bulgaria, to generate competitive advantages by making such decisions faster. 

According to energy expert Julian Popov, Western European countries can use gas as a transitional fuel to some extent because they already have gas transmission infrastructure, which makes it an easy solution for now. But for the countries of Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria, expanding the use of gas requires large investments in infrastructure, rendering them pointless. It would be better to invest these funds directly in alternative sources, otherwise double costs will have to be incurred, which in turn threatens to create a lag in the implementation of new green technologies. 

Meanwhile, it has become clear that the EC is returning Bulgaria’s recovery and sustainability plan for revision. Lachezar Bogdanov and Dr Petya Georgieva from the team of the Institute for Market Economics made an up-to-date analysis on this topic. 

How all this will affect the country’s future actions on the gas issue depends not only on our own ideas but also on the context of European energy policies. At this stage, however, it is clear that Bulgaria does not have a clear vision for its capital program in the development of efficient green energy.

The text “Green myths about natural gas” by Gavrail Gavrailov was initially published in Bulgarian on December 16, 2021 in Evromegdan.

This article was prepared within the project “Expanding support for European climate law in Bulgaria”, implemented by BlueLink with financial support from the European Climate Foundation.

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