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Boyana Achovski, General Secretary of the international organization Gas Infrastructure Europe (GIE)
In both short and long term, gas will continue being part of the energy mix of Southeastern Europe
AUTHOR: Lubomir Grozdanov

What are the current priorities for Gas Infrastructure Europe (GIE) in relation to the Green deal and the transition to the EU's low-carbon energy?

Paving the way for a clean, secure, affordable European energy supply is essential for all of us. The existing gas infrastructure is ready to enable this energy revolution and will be a reliable ally to help to deliver the EU Green Deal objectives.

First of all, GIE will focus on enhancing the expansion of the EU hydrogen economy to establish a stronger, sustainable and decarbonised European Union – and to demonstrate with concrete actions the capability of the gas infrastructure to deliver the EU Green Deal. Thanks to its extensive dimension and its capacity to enable innovative projects, the European gas network will significantly support the development of a robust hydrogen value chain. Using the existing European gas infrastructure for its transport will boost the transition, enabling the so-called “hard-to-abate” sectors (buildings, heavy-duty transport, aviation, shipping, or industrial processes) to be a part of it. While avoiding stranded assets and a significant amount of additional investments, using the EU gas network’s flexibility will allow the establishment of a more integrated energy system that will welcome an increasing share of renewables. According to the Gas for Climate study by Navigant, maintaining the existing gas infrastructure generates €217 billion in annual energy system cost savings.

Second of all, GIE is on the pathway to building on the synergies that exist between the electricity and gas sector. The flexibility and resilience provided by the gas system to the electricity system alleviate the stress of the power grid, significantly reduce investments needed and facilitate the integration of large-scale variable renewable energy. As a result, the gas system, which in the future will run on renewable and low-carbon gases, will enable system integration while expanding the economic viability of renewable energy. To facilitate this, new business models, support schemes and remuneration are needed. Renewable and low-carbon molecules will be a structural component of a secure and flexible energy system. Based on the combination of gas assets, hydrogen and its derivatives will enhance a hybrid energy system. Through effective energy system integration, energy infrastructure companies can help create sustainable jobs along today’s emerging renewable and low-carbon gas value chain. As there are different paths to decarbonise the EU economy, the regional approach will be essential; for example, gas appears a great solution to substitute coal in Central-Eastern and South-Eastern Europe.

Last but not least, to achieve the EU Green Deal’s objective, the EU needs to support research and innovation touching upon low-carbon and renewable technologies. As pilot initiatives will be the driving force of this energy transition, investment efforts must be intensified to enhance their expansion. Among GIE members, we see that numerous innovative hydrogen-related projects have been initiated and they would greatly benefit from appropriate regulatory measures. To learn more on how GIE members are currently steering the expansion of renewable and low-carbon hydrogen value chains across the EU, we invite you to consult our brochure.

What will be the role of the European gas infrastructure in the transition to low-carbon energy? Will there be more or less infrastructure in the EU and how the infrastructure will be used?

Thanks to its numerous technological assets, the European gas infrastructure will endorse a crucial role in the transition to a low-carbon economy. Today, the gas system can integrate large quantities of renewable and low-carbon gases with limited technical adaptation depending on the Member States. It is mostly well inter-connected across EU’s countries and allows for highly economical and efficient supply, transport and storage of enormous amounts of energy from production sites over long distances. Gas grids are already suited for transporting biomethane and can be fit for hydrogen with additional investments. Additionally, the gas grid is much more cost-effective than an electricity grid: for the same investment, a gas pipe can transport 10-20 times more energy than an electricity cable. Europe has a well-developed gas grid that can be converted to accommodate hydrogen at a minimal cost.

Gas storages can store sustainable and fluctuating energy on a large scale and at low cost, thereby ensuring the security of supply. They provide and run flexibility tools from intra-hourly up to seasonal operational requirements from customers enabling a robust and resilient system. Gas storages can also play an important role in storing renewable and low-carbon gases, including hydrogen, in the future: salt caverns, with some retrofitting, are suited for hydrogen, and the current assessment on the potential of depleted gas fields is showing their great potential. In a future energy system primarily dominated by intermittent energy production from wind and sun, the tremendous flexibility and storage capacity provided by the gas system will be necessary to secure a cost-efficient integration of renewable energy sources.

LNG terminals enhance the security of supply through the source and route diversification and secure access to global and competitive (fossil and renewable) energy sources. They are also an energy flexibility provider. LNG can substitute more polluting fossil fuels, hence reducing CO2, NOx, SOx, noise and particulate matter emissions in maritime and road transport, power and heat generation (i.e. on remote locations not connected to the gas transmission system). LNG terminals can decarbonize by greening the gas upstream, by using low-carbon technologies downstream or can, for example, be the entry door to (imported) hydrogen-based energy carriers.

What were the actual effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the gas market and gas operators?

While the energy sector is under extreme pressure from COVID-19, the European gas infrastructure, responsible for more than fifty thousand jobs, has proven to be resilient in these times.
As soon as the current crisis became apparent, gas infrastructure operators adapted their operation and took the necessary steps to protect their workforce, maintained regular business operation and prepared for next winter’s supply. We know that the gas infrastructure business continuity (transmission, storages and LNG regasification) was ensured during this extraordinary crisis and that the supply of renewable and low-carbon gas has been, and will continue to be, flawless. Our industry has been playing a pivotal role in Europe’s energy supply for many years. It has always been an immense responsibility that drives our commitment and dedication in this pandemic situation as well.
We applaud the more than fifty thousand employees of the gas infrastructure industry for their tremendous work in securing gas flows to customers throughout Europe, meeting fluctuating demand and balancing the overall energy system every day. Indeed, Europe’s gas infrastructure with its extensive transmission pipeline system connecting underground storages and LNG terminals are key elements that guarantee the security of supply of energy for all EU citizens, and the continuity of this is of utmost priority. Widespread crises such as the current one makes us more aware of which services and systems are essential to our economy, and the European gas infrastructure is one of them.
Our industry delivers energy to millions of European citizens, and it is our job to respond to all challenges that may affect this, including in exceptional conditions as those that we are witnessing today. From the outset of the current pandemic, all our members have established emergency response teams adapting their operations to safeguard their employees and keep the gas flowing. Close communications have been held and remain between members and authorities on developments and new measures that can be taken. Such standards differ between countries and companies, but some examples include no physical meetings and home working.

Hydrogen is only one of the key elements in the new European energy policy. What are the main challenges on the move to hydrogen?

A fast and cost-efficient transition to a decarbonised society is possible if all available technologies and resources are considered. As highlighted by Frans Timmermans - Executive Vice-President in charge of the EU Green Deal, European Commission, “the existing gas infrastructure represents a valuable asset for the development of the hydrogen value chain within the EU’’. It offers a unique opportunity to maintain and expend Europe’s technological leadership while generating employment. It will also substantially contribute to the post-pandemic economic recovery while achieving full decarbonisation of energy supply in all sectors by 2050.

One of the main challenges at EU level is how to deliver large volumes of hydrogen. Well, this is where the transport infrastructure comes in. Our industry is taking action –  a consortium of 11 GIE members coming from 9 EU countries joined forces to present last July a plan for a “European hydrogen backbone” network. Ongoing research on the development of a dedicated hydrogen shows that the challenges related to the infrastructure will depend on the regions’ specificities: partial replacement of valves and seals will be enough for some of them whereas full equipment replacement will be required in others. Blending could also represent a transitional solution for transporting small volumes of hydrogen until large volumes of pure hydrogen will be available. For the next evolution phases, dedicated transport infrastructure will emerge together with industrial clusters where production, demand, transportation and storage can be effectively organised, allowing economies of scale, job creation and decarbonisation. Looking at the optimal way to bring hydrogen from the supply source to demand area will be however crucial, especially in the case of the Offshore Wind Strategy. More initiatives that support research & innovation and also projects that aim to operate in the area of green hydrogen production from offshore wind are needed. In concrete, the EU must put more effort into the development of a system where the production of green hydrogen from offshore wind energy and its transport via hydrogen pipelines to the mainland is explored.

To encourage gas infrastructure operators in their engagement for developing decarbonised technologies, the EU policy framework should be supportive in a way that does not distort market competition, complies with the applicable regulatory framework and secures third party access to maximise societal benefits.

To accelerate the EU transitional process, we can identify several spheres of action touching upon renewable and low-carbon gases. To begin, the EU needs to define a common terminology via clear, accurate and science-based definition. For an inclusive transition, the different speeds that characterise the EU regions also need to be taken into consideration, for example, by enabling national binding consumption targets to be tailor-made.

The industry has an important role to play within this energy transition; if we want to enable its full potential, a credible documentation of the green value of renewable and low-carbon gases such as Guarantees of Origin (GOs) must be drafted, and levies, grid charges and taxes must be adjusted to reflect societal benefits provided by the gas infrastructure.

To further secure its technological leadership, the EU needs to additionally support network owners, enabling them to operate several categories of gases thanks to the amendment relevant EU legislation (e.g. TEN-E regulation). As there is a need for coping with the coexistence of different gases, providing them with incentives to adapt their infrastructures accordingly will be, for instance, a powerful lever.

Do you expect a change in gas flows in Southeast Europe and what kind they would you be?

For the short and medium term perspective, the gas will still have its part in the energy mix in Southeast Europe (SEE), especially for:
- Power generation and heating (individual and district heating and cooling) by replacing coal or oil with gas;
- Transport, both road and sea (most of the SEE countries have sea access) by using LNG as a fuel.

Although the current gas consumption in SEE is relatively low, except for Romania and Ukraine, the lack of natural gas resources in the area turned into an import dependency and a security of supply issue.
This can be addressed by diversification of the import routes and sources through mindful gas infrastructure development.

The mindful gas infrastructure development in SEE is also considered at EU level. Whilst the total number of PCIs decreased on a European level, the number of PCIs in the Southern Gas Corridor increase from 11 to 12, backing up projects like TAP, BRUA, Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB Project) and the Krk and Alexandropoulos LNG terminals.

There is also confirmed potential of gas exploitations in the Black Sea (OMV Petroms’Neptune) and plans to connect Europe to the large reserves in Mediterranean Sea (Leviathan) via pipelines as EastMed or LNG. In conclusion, we can expect that future flows to come to SEE, via new LNG infrastructures (Krk, Alexandropoulos) or via new sources (Black Sea, Caspian Sea through TANAP and TAP).

Do you have an improvement in diversifying and ensuring reliable supplies to Europe from third countries?

As mentioned before, the supply sources diversification is essential for SEE.
The LNG, as a global commodity, will allow imports from worldwide sources as long as they comply with the EU existing and future regulation. The Southern corridor (TANAP, TAP and IGB) and EastMed project would also allow access to new sources of natural gas (Caspian Sea, Kurdistan, Mediterranean Sea, etc).

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20.03.2022  Teodor Bobochikov, Managing Partner, V-Ridium
Energy Transformation – Trends and drivers
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