Many energy providers in Canada harness natural gas to work hand-in-hand with wind and solar resources to ensure continued electrical generation system reliability and meet their net-zero emission targets in the future.

At least two of them – Alberta’s ENMAX Energy and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) – have announced major initiatives in the last several months to either bolster their portfolios of natural gas assets or make significant environmental improvements to existing gas infrastructure.

In Alberta, an important carbon-capture feasibility study has just been granted funding at ENMAX’s Shepard Energy Centre, east of Calgary. The Centre is Canada’s largest electricity generation facility for commercial-scale natural gas combined-cycle plants.

Funding from Emissions Reduction Alberta and the Government of Alberta – one of 11 projects approved for funding under the Carbon Capture Kickstart: Design and Engineering funding opportunity – will explore carbon capture feasibility involving highly specialized and detailed engineering assessment and design work.​

Greg Retzer, Senior Vice President, ENMAX Energy, says the study will provide the company with data and insight into capture technologies and potential emissions reduction targets.

“Shepard Energy Centre already provides clean, safe and reliable electricity for Albertans but there are opportunities to make further environmental improvements as we move towards a lower carbon electricity future,” said Retzer.

No strangers to using natural gas to ensure the resilience of electricity generation, ENMAX Energy also brought Canada’s first hybrid electric gas turbine to Alberta last year.

Located at ENMAX’s Crossfield Energy Centre, this unique technology provides enhanced flexibility in how electricity is provided to market while lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

“Traditionally, power plants like Crossfield Energy Centre must idle their natural gas-fuelled turbines to remain ready to provide power to the grid when there’s a change in supply or demand,” explains ENMAX in a news release.

“By combining one of Crossfield’s existing natural gas-fuelled LM6000 turbines with a 10 MW/4.3 MWh lithium-ion battery energy storage system from GE Renewable Energy, the hybrid facility can provide on-demand electricity without the turbine idling.”

“When longer duration power is required, the battery provides the initial demand, giving the turbine time to seamlessly start up and take over.”

This enables the gas turbine to run less, avoiding an expected 45,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year – the equivalent of taking approximately 10,000 cars off the road.

While natural gas is one of the lowest carbon emitting fossil fuel options available for power generation, ENMAX says it is proactively working to find efficiencies and incremental improvements that further reduce GHG emissions intensity.

In Ontario, OPG recently completed an agreement to acquire three combined-cycle natural gas-fired plants in Canada from TC Energy’s wholly-owned subsidiary, TransCanada Energy.

OPG acquires full ownership of Napanee Generating Station (900MW), Halton Hills Generating Station, and TC Energy’s 50 per cent stake in the 550MW Portlands Energy Centre.

“The role that natural gas plays in maintaining system reliability has become even more important with the addition of intermittent wind and solar generation in recent years,” said OPG president and CEO Ken Hartwick, in explaining the purchase.

“Natural gas is the partner or enabler of renewable energy, providing the flexibility required to ensure a reliable electricity system.”

The corporation turned to natural gas after closing the last of its coal stations in 2014, and believes that move was an important step in combatting climate change.

“I think we all need to understand the immense value these natural gas assets bring, both in terms of guaranteeing reliability and affordability to the system,” Heather Ferguson, OPG Senior VP, Business Development, Strategy and Corporate Affairs said in a recent ARC Energy Ideas podcast.

“I think the generating stations will provide huge value to the system and allow us to also electrify other parts of the economy, like transportation.”

In the meantime, OPG says it is exploring different ways, including carbon capture, to reduce gas emissions over time.

So, can natural gas play an important role in the world’s transition to net-zero? Research company IHS Markit says yes.

In a 2021 report, ‘A Sustainable Flame: The Role of Gas in Net Zero’, the fuel is seen as having a part in both the near-term and long-term energy decarbonization targets – owing to the ability of existing infrastructure to be converted to carry low-carbon fuels including ammonia, hydrogen, synthetic methane, and renewable natural gas.

The report states that more emphasis is needed on the repurposing of existing infrastructure to enable gas to become a “second pillar” of decarbonization alongside renewables.

“The versatility of natural gas infrastructure presents an opportunity to seize the low-hanging fruit of emissions reduction in the near-term while also making a down payment for deeper decarbonization,” said Michael Stoppard, chief strategist, global gas, IHS Markit.

Switching to natural gas can support vital early action by replacing coal and oil and their associated higher emissions while also acting as a pre-build of energy carriers for a low-carbon future, the report says.

“Switching to natural gas can support vital early action by replacing coal and oil and their associated higher emissions while also acting as a pre-build of energy carriers for a low-carbon future.”

Replacing older and less efficient power plants with best-in-class natural gas generation reduces emissions by 50 per cent unit of electricity.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Forum says natural gas is also frequently cited as a driver of the energy transition “because of its central role (production and transport) of hydrogen – which the European Union, among others, has predicted will play a key role in a future climate-neutral economy.”

“The EU’s hydrogen policy notes that although the cost of producing ‘clean energy” – made entirely using renewable energy – is falling, it remains comparatively high.”

The strategy does envision producing clean hydrogen as a gradual trajectory that will initially include hydrogen produced from natural gas.

In addition, carbon capture, use and storage technology can work with renewables to address the problem of hard-to-abate emissions from heavy industries, including steel, cement and petrochemicals.

Elsewhere, increasing natural gas use in power generation in Asia to displace coal could cut emissions by around three per cent of all GHG emissions from the energy sector.

That would require an increase in global gas production of about 15 per cent from today’s level.

According to the International Energy Agency, natural gas was already the largest source – about 38 per cent – of U.S. electricity generation in 2021.

Dennis Lanthier is an award-winning writer and corporate communications specialist with almost two decades of experience in oil and gas. He earned an International Association of Business Communicator’s Gold Quill in 2011 for the creation of a magazine distributed to TransCanada Pipeline’s employees and retirees. Dennis is now a freelance writer working with several oil and gas associations in the energy sector.