MYTH BUSTING: Renewable gas

The fossil gas industry wants us to believe that gas is evolving to become renewable and clean.

The fossil gas industry has been promoting ‘renewable gas’ to residential customers as a viable future energy supply, and they’ve allocated $6 million for ‘renewable gas’ promotional campaigns.

The gas industry says it will be running small-scale projects to demonstrate the viability of ‘renewable gas.’

Their most recent pitch to consumers is via the popular MasterChef show, where this season’s contestants will be cooking with ‘renewable gas’ supplied by the fossil gas industry. Cooktops will be supplied with 100% biomethane – gas derived from biological materials such as food waste, sewage, and agricultural waste – and BBQs powered by hydrogen – gas made by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Climate communications group, Comms Declare, has asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to investigate the claims being made by the Australian Gas Network (AGN) as part of its sponsorship of MasterChef.

They have made a specific claim against MasterChef host, Andy Allen, in Episode 4 when he said: “And I’m excited to say this year, MasterChef is going greener with renewable gas”.

“We believe that hundreds of thousands of MasterChef fans are being deceived into thinking that the gas used in the program is good for the planet,” says Comms Declare founder, Belinda Noble.

Here are some of the claims  being made about ‘renewable gas’, and some facts:

Claim #1: Renewable gas can be safely and reliably delivered through the existing gas network.

FALSE: The fossil gas industry claims their infrastructure can be repurposed to deliver ‘renewable gas’, derived from either biomethane or hydrogen.

While biomethane and hydrogen may play a targeted role in certain industrial applications, both are too costly and too far off to be widely used in homes and small businesses.

Biomethane is chemically identical to natural gas, can be transported by gas pipelines, and used in the same appliances as fossil gas. However, there are economic and logistical challenges to using biomethane in homes. The Future Fuels Cooperative Research Centre estimates using biomethane in Australia would be more expensive than the projected long-term gas price.

It is also unlikely Australia will be able to produce enough biomethane to replace all its current gas use. Estimates predict it could only cater to one third of current gas demand.

Hydrogen is also unlikely to be competitive compared to using electricity as a substitute for fossil gas. The cost of hydrogen is three times higher than using electricity. An international meta-analysis of 32 studies found hydrogen for space heating and hot water heating results in higher energy system costs and higher costs for consumers.

The Grattan Institute found that “just as burning gas is less efficient than using electricity for the same task, so too is burning hydrogen.” About 75 per cent of the cost of making hydrogen comes from the cost of electricity consumed in the process.

“Cheap [green] hydrogen requires cheap electricity, and cheap electricity opens up more options for using electricity.”

Only a small percentage of hydrogen can be used in the current gas network so switching to hydrogen would also require the gas infrastructure to be upgraded.

Consumers would also have to change all their gas appliances to make them hydrogen-compatible. Current gas appliances can tolerate only a maximum of 13 per cent of hydrogen blended with fossil gas so this would require entire supply chains to be built.

Furthermore, appliances that run on renewable gases like bio methane and hydrogen are still in the early stages of development and are not widely accessible to consumers, whereas electric appliances are widely available now, with a variety of options for consumers to choose from.

Claim #2: Renewable gas currently costs more to produce than “natural gas” but is “similar to other technologies such as renewable electricity and solar panels.”  

FALSE. The lifetime cost of running ‘renewable gas’ appliances will always be more than rooftop solar. Australian rooftop solar is now some of the cheapest electricity in the world. Rooftop solar has already brought down the wholesale cost of electricity and as more renewable sources are built and connected to the electricity grid, the cost of renewable electricity will also decline.

Transitioning to electric appliances run on renewable electricity and solar, avoids the need for extensive infrastructure changes associated with renewable gas distribution and storage.

Claim #3: Gas is changing for good and has a long-term future in Australia

Only if the fossil gas industry has its way.

Numerous studies have shown that electrification is a cheaper, more efficient way to decarbonise our homes. Waiting for ‘renewable gas’ to become cost efficient and viable will jeopardise opportunities to electrify fast and meet our Paris climate targets.

We don’t currently have enough sites in Australia to make biomethane competitive.

The gas industry has done its own research which shows that 100% hydrogen won’t be feasible until the late 2040s.

It’s also unclear whether the fossil gas industry even sees a long-term future for ‘renewable gas’ even though it is promoting the fuel. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) has revealed a disparity between what the gas companies claim about ‘renewable gas’ and their actual financial plans. For instance, they have only allocated $19 million to ‘hydrogen readiness’.

Meanwhile the gas industry has requested $461 million from Government to help them accelerate the depreciation of the gas infrastructure over the next five years. IEEFA says this “appears to be a move to recover their costs before significant numbers of customers disconnect in favour of electricity.”

Claim #4: Australia needs many solutions to supply sustainable energy to homes and businesses and consumers should have the right to choose what appliances they install in their homes.

Yes we should all be able to choose our appliances, but consumers should also have the right to be fully informed about the appliances they install. This includes information about the full life-time costs, the emissions they produce, and the health impacts.

Currently, we do not have minimum energy standards for some of these appliances which makes it difficult to quickly and easily compare the costs of different appliances and make informed decisions about our home purchases.

If consumers were fully informed about the cost of running gas appliances in their homes for instance, and were able to compare this with buying and running efficient electrical appliances, they would be unlikely to choose gas appliances, or ‘renewable gas’ appliances.

Numerous studies have shown that switching to all-electric appliances in the home is significantly cheaper and more efficient than running gas appliances, as well as having none of the health concerns associated with domestic gas use.

‘Renewable gas’ could also leave consumers exposed to unnecessary risk. If the gas networks fail to deliver on their ‘renewable gas’ promises, consumers who purchased appliances as a result of these campaigns, could be left with significant sunk costs, which they may seek to recover via legal means.

‘Renewable gas’ campaigns may also encourage householders to keep buying gas appliances in the belief that there is a long-term future for the domestic gas supply. These appliances, most of which won’t be compatible with hydrogen options, are likely to become obsolete before the end of their life.

Claim #5: Bio methane and hydrogen are clean fuels and have no negative impacts on indoor air quality.

While bio methane and hydrogen combustion generally produce fewer pollutants than fossil gas, they still generate emissions that can impact indoor air quality.

Incomplete combustion or leaks can produce carbon monoxide and other harmful byproducts that are common in fossil gas.

Hydrogen is a very small molecule – much smaller than the methane that makes up the bulk of fossil gas. If pure hydrogen was used in the current gas pipes the chances are that our appliances would leak quite a lot because the valves aren’t smaller enough.

Anne Delaney
SwitchedOn Editor
June 4, 2024
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