Technology Could Make Natural Gas a Better BetBy Cas Biekmann | Thu, 03/25/2021 - 19:52
Technology is essential in the competitiveness of the natural gas, the cleanest burning fossil fuel. Will Mexico take advantage?
It is no secret that Mexico relies on natural gas and the cleanest burning fossil fuel’s use has been growing steadily. Although the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a slowdown in demand, the country’s energy needs will require a stable input for the foreseeable future. Its bet is on natural gas, and emerging technologies could make that bet a winning position.
Combined cycle remains the main technology Mexico relies on to turn natural gas into firm power, according to PRODESEN. This type of power plant uses two turbines: one powered with natural gas and the other powered with the heat generated by the process. As of October 2020, the combined cycle represents 59.6 percent of energy produced in the country. A further 4.4 percent comes from turbogas plants, which rely on natural gas as well.
Even though other thermal energy sources, such as the country’s internal combustion engines, cogeneration facilities and conventional thermal energy make use of Mexico’s more polluting fuel oil, these facilities could still be adapted by switching to natural gas.
Technology Fosters Gas Use
Technology plays an important role when it comes to natural gas. For its transport, intelligent pipeline systems allow for continuous monitoring, making predictive maintenance a possibility. Natural gas, while much cleaner than other fossil fuels, still has a notable carbon footprint, notes Yolanda Villegas, Head of Legal Affairs of EON Energy. “Regarding the Paris Agreement, the energy transition act excludes combustion generation, including natural gas, as a clean energy source for power production. If this production has a quantity of greenhouse gas emission greater than 100kg of CO2 per megawatt-hour, then it is not a clean energy. For Mexico’s combined cycle generation, the average is 400kg, meaning we are way past this line.” To counter this, SENER has said it intends to use carbon capture technology.
Technology also plays an important role outside large-scale power generation. Other than in the domestic sphere, companies in the commercial and industrial (C&I) segments often turn to gas-based power production because it delivers firm, non-fluctuating power at competitive prices. During the pandemic, such solutions have been able to provide reliability where it mattered most: at energy-intensive hospitals around the country. Although a single engine produces over 3MW of energy capacity, much smaller solutions are most in demand. These gas engines can incorporate renewable energy such as solar as well, with added battery storage, forming an unconnected micro-grid if clients require it.
To expand the reach of natural gas, pipelines have been the traditional secure option. Once operational, a pipeline will always provide the cheapest source of gas. But building pipelines is an expensive and socially complicated process. It is much simpler to load gas into a truck or boat and move it to its destination. For this to happen, natural gas needs to be liquefied into liquefied natural gas (LNG). When it comes to bringing gas to Mexico’s remote areas, “LNG has a leading role,” Alberto Escofet, Country Manager of Enagás, told MBN. “Most of the coming gasification efforts will be done on wheels, using virtual pipelines instead of physical pipelines,” he added.
LNG has the advantage that it can be exported, a possibility that happened for the first time in Mexican history after the government granted IEnova’s LNG facility the ability to make this happen, as it could help CFE to get rid of excess gas.
Future Includes Hydrogen
Hydrogen is considered an expensive fuel for energy generation worldwide but confidence in the resource is increasing rapidly. In the EU, hydrogen is championed as a key energy resource for post-COVID-19 economic reactivation plans. It is positioned to become an integral part of the trillion-dollar US plans toward decarbonization as well.
To generate hydrogen, companies facilitate water electrolysis. Electric currents are used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Less cleaner forms of hydrogen, called blue and grey hydrogen, feature fossil fuels in the process, meaning they are not 100 percent renewable. Green hydrogen, however, uses renewable energy for electrolysis. For a country increasingly focused on natural gas, such as Mexico, hydrogen can prove to be advantageous. “You can use the current infrastructure to transport hydrogen,” says Escofet.
In addition, many modern engines that burn natural gas can be adapted to use hydrogen as well. In fact, some already do. “We can run our engines 100 percent on hydrogen,” said Raúl Carral, Business Development Executive for Mexico, Central America and Caribbean of Wärtsilä in an MBN interview.
Companies involved in the natural gas environment are catching on quick, as are big private power producers like Iberdrola, ENEL, Vestas and BayWa r.e. “It is just a matter of time before these technologies take over the market. There are companies, universities and associations in Mexico working on hydrogen developments, and they have been doing so for approximately 20 years. The area simply does not receive the same amount of publicity,” said Escofet.