Gas must be ‘completely’ decarbonised by 2050, says UK think-tank

British Gas announced, 10 April 2018 a 5.5% rise in its energy prices. The increase will affect over four million of its customers nationwide. [EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN]

Britain must get rid of fossil-based natural gas in the coming three decades if the country is to meet its long-term climate change objectives, according to a report published on Friday (15 February) by a think-tank close to the ruling Conservative party.

The report, ‘Pressure in the pipeline: decarbonising the UK’s gas’, says demand for natural gas in the heat sector must diminish, and calls for government incentives to boost the supply of low-carbon gases.

Natural gas combustion is responsible for around 35% of the UK’s total global warming emissions, says the report by Bright Blue, a think-tank close to the Tory party of Prime Minister Theresa May.

And of half of those emissions are associated with gas use in the heating sector, it points out, meaning deeper decarbonisation is necessary if Britain is to meet its current climate goals and aim for net-zero emissions by 2050 as envisaged at EU level.

“UK gas must be completely decarbonised during the coming three decades if this country is to meet its current and likely future legal emissions reduction target,” said Wilf Lytton, senior researcher at Bright Blue and co-author of the report, published on Friday (15 February).

This means “natural gas will need to be almost entirely eliminated from the networks by 2050, if not earlier,” Lytton told EURACTIV, saying this is necessary for meeting the 1.5-degree target mentioned in the Paris Agreement.

Lytton stopped short of calling for an outright ban on fossil-based natural gas, saying a preferred route is to create a market for low-carbon gases instead.

Such a policy would likely result in “a significant curtailing of natural gas imports,” he admitted, but without preventing fossil gas from being used in the production of so-called ‘blue hydrogen’ where CO2 is taken out of the gas and stored underground using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

With the right incentives, the government can eventually “end the UK’s dependency on natural gas,” the think-tank affirms.

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Low-carbon gas obligation

There are still significant obstacles, however. Existing gas regulations were designed decades ago, Lytton said, and there are currently no incentives for investments into low-carbon gases, which hampers deeper decarbonisation of the sector.

The UK government “should approach the task of decarbonising gas with the same fervour it has applied to delivering low-carbon and affordable electricity” at the beginning of the century, Lytton argued.

In particular, he says energy regulator Ofgem should introduce a new low-carbon gas obligation. “This will enable the UK to decarbonise the gas network at the lowest possible cost, without distorting the market and removing the need to subsidise alternatives to natural gas,” he said.

The UK’s energy minister, Claire Perry, welcomed Bright Blue’s “thought-provoking” ideas, saying Britain must now build on the success of decarbonisation in the electricity sector to start decarbonising gas too.

“We need to get serious in tackling heat,” Perry argued, saying future policy solutions should build on the strength of Britain’s world-leading natural gas sector and infrastructure.

Tackling emissions from residential heating is a pressing concern in this regard. Over 80% of UK homes depend on gas for heating and cooking. And even though demand is likely to diminish in the future thanks to efficiency measures, gas is likely to remain a substantial part of Britain’s energy mix for decades to come, remarked Antoinette Sandbach, a Conservative MP from Cheshire.

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Injecting low-carbon gases in the network

Solutions suggested in the report include gradually blending higher amounts of low-carbon gases in the network, combined with measures to lower consumption on the consumer side.

“Hydrogen and Biomethane can help deliver serious climate action through our existing infrastructure, keeping consumers on board and maintaining the flexibility and resilience provided by the gas system,” Parry said.

The flagship recommendation of the report is to include a requirement for gas suppliers to deliver a steadily increasing proportion of low-carbon gases – such as biomethane, bioSNG and hydrogen – to the network. The amounts would then be ramped up over time, in line with the UK’s current and likely future greenhouse gas reduction objectives under the Paris Agreement.

But this will require changes to the UK gas network “on a scale not experienced since flammable gas first arrived in homes,” the report said.

Indeed, gas safety regulations in the UK only permit up to 0.1% hydrogen to be injected in the gas network. These should be amended to reflect the technical capability of the network to accept higher intensities of hydrogen, as well as biomethane, the report argues.

For instance, the report calls for amending the Calorific Value (CV) requirements regarding the composition and price of gas, which currently limit the use of different low-carbon gases in the network. “Over time, the requirement to blend hydrogen, and biomethane with additives to achieve compliance with CV requirements should be lessened,” the report says.

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Using existing infrastructure

This would also ensure existing gas infrastructure is utilised to its maximum, diminishing the risk that pipelines become “stranded assets” as natural gas of fossil origin is being phased out.

“In a scenario where natural gas supply is gradually and completely replaced by biogas and hydrogen, the gas network infrastructure would remain viable in the longer term, serving a variety of sectors as it does today,” Lytton said.

Minimising the price impact on consumers is another key aspect of the think-tank’s report.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) estimates the cumulative additional costs of decarbonising the heating sector, compared to the status quo, are in the range of £120- £300 billion through to 2050 (€136- €341 billion).

Even though the costs of low-carbon gas can be expected to fall over time, deeper decarbonisation will also raise the costs of the gas network in the near-term, the report warns. And passing on those costs to consumers via energy bills does not appear like a politically viable option.

To soften the impact on poorer households, Bright Blue recommends tariff switching and changing the methodology for calculating the energy performance of buildings in order to promote renovation and clean heating alternatives.

The report also calls for raising the minimum energy efficiency requirement of domestic gas boilers from the existing level of 92% to 95% “as soon as possible”.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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