Gas sector has to show that it is serious about the energy transition


Jan Paul van Soest: “This is not about cubic meters, but about energy functions”

It is 1990. As the new director of the research agency CE Delft, I had to make my maiden speech at an energy conference. I told about how our research showed that it would be possible to mix in up to 10% hydrogen in the gas network. This could be produced from renewable sources. Such solutions would aid the transition to a sustainable economy. In Dutch, we still used the word ‘overgang’, where ‘transitie’ is more common nowadays. In my youthful innocence, I added that to me it seemed conceivable that somewhere between 2000 and 2010, Gasunie would change its name to Waterstofunie, or ‘Hydrogen Union’.


That was something I should not have said. Nowadays, you have to at least accuse someone of bestiality to create a scandal, but at the time, the word ‘Waterstofunie’ was enough. After my speech, a high official of Gasunie came up to me and snarled: “Mr Van Soest, you have insulted the company!” He turned around and marched away, leaving me behind, baffled. I had no idea what I had done wrong. I only realised that later.


Recently, I had to think about that event, now that the social debate on gas has tilted, under the influence of, particularly, the discussion on shale gas (read the brilliant book by Remco de Boer), the earthquakes in Groningen and the swelling climate discussion. It is clear as rain: the future cannot return to the glorious past.

“Not by far have all the consequences of the two-degree objective and corresponding carbon budget become clear and accepted”

That is how it is: it is quite tricky to see an ultimately inevitable change coming at an early stage. In 1990, we were, of course, far too early with our studies into new economic models, climate change, hydrogen blending, far-reaching reductions in energy demand. Gas used to be the clean energy source, comfortable, reliable, the mainstay of our prosperity, local – what more did we want? So why think about a ‘Hydrogen Union’? It is quite logical now that this idea was considered as an insult by a proud industry. 


But we cannot ignore the new reality, and the sector has started to reinvent itself: the gas world has to become a driving force of the energy transition and show that it is serious. This means the development of and investment in new business models that accelerate the transition to an emission-free economy. Or rather, looking at it from a broader perspective: a zero-impact energy management.  

The subject of climate change is high on the agenda, but not by far have all the consequences of the two-degree objective and corresponding carbon budget become clear and accepted. In addition, there are more factors that influence the well-being of the planet and hence also of people and economies, such as the unimaginable loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, the runaway nitrogen cycle and also the sulphur and soot problems, such as discussed by Bernice Notenboom in her film Seablind.  

“If trends continue to dominate our options and technologies, sustainable energy will remain a fiction”

Famous pioneering companies have paved the road for the zero-impact economy: Office furnisher Ahrend no longer sells chairs, but provides hours of comfortable seating. Philips does not sell lamps, but well-lit work places. VolkerWessels does not just build houses, but creates living environments that make people happy. And all that with the lowest possible impact, of course. A shift from products to services, to functions.  

This change will also have to take place in the gas sector: it is not about cubic meters, but about energy features, such as high- and low-temperature heat, transport and mobility, lighting and devices. The remaining carbon budget shall have to supply these functions. 

Beer mat

But the ball is not only in the court of the energy sector, society also has work to do. This becomes clear when we compare perceptions about energy to the facts. There is still a huge gap: the energy supply is shifting from compact energy carriers which can be extracted underground to space-intensive, visible, overground facilities. Will society accept that?  

There are virtually no scenarios that can achieve the two-degree objective without a substantial proportion of CO2 capture and storage, CCS, also for gas application. But almost nobody seems to want that. We think that, at the moment, around a third of the energy supply comes from renewable sources.

Even positive news does not seem to be accepted. According to a beer mat calculation, the remaining Dutch gas supply seems to fit within a feasible carbon budget for our country, taking the two-degree objective into account (if carbon-intensive energy carriers are repressed). But those who bring that up, are tarred and feathered, just like those who stressed that it is still possible to extract gas from the Waddenzee without causing damage to nature.  


So, not only the gas sector has to change and better define and shape its new role in the transition, but society will also have to be more clear about the conditions that should apply to the development of energy supply. If the endless discussions about this subject continue, all players continue to be confronted with a high degree of uncertainty, if trends continue to dominate which options and technologies are most desirable, or taboo, sustainable energy will remain a fiction.  

If the gas sector really takes on this new role, and also dares to take part in the debate about control and conditions, I dare to admit that I was wrong when I made my suggestion for a ‘Hydrogen Union’ in 1990. I should have called it an ‘Energy Transition Union’. It was too early then, but the time is more than ripe now. It is true that not everything becomes liquid under pressure, but gas does. And this pressure will remain for a while.  

Jan Paul van Soest is a partner in De Gemeynt, a cooperative of advisers, thinkers and entrepreneurs,