The heat is on

The UK has so far been successful in achieving interim targets for carbon reduction. But now the low hanging fruit is scarce, it’s time to tackle the big challenge head on - decarbonising our heat. Karen Fletcher looks at the options and the hurdles ahead.

Karen Wood, BEIS

When the government nationalised UK gas supply in 1948, there were over 1,000 municipal and private gas producers at work at that time. Gas was made from coal in what was very much a local business. After the Gas Act of 1948, all of these were merged into 12 Gas Boards, forming British Gas.

The nationalised industry remained ‘local’ in the sense that there was no interconnection with continental Europe – Britain was on its own in terms of gas resources.

Jump forward two decades to 1966 when there was a very different mood in the country. Natural gas was discovered on the UK Continental Shelf and (another recently victorious Labour) government decided to move the country away from ‘town gas’ to use of this new resource.

To say this was a major shift in terms of supply and distribution techniques is an understatement. Between 1967 and 1977 the entire country was switched to natural gas – requiring about 40 million appliances to be converted by British Gas.

This potted history of gas shows that one of our most important long-term energy sources has been through major upheavals in the past, and it’s likely to happen again in our lifetimes because supply and demand are changing, along with a far greater focus on environmental issues.

The UK is committed to cutting its carbon emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050 (via the Climate Change Act). So far so good, as we have hit the first three interim targets. However, we are now faced with advancing from 2023 to 2032 with evergreater cuts in carbon, and the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. Time to move on to those harder-to-reach plums.

According to the government’s Clean Growth Strategy launched in October 2017, heating in buildings and industry creates around 32% of total UK emissions, so it is a natural target for improvement. However, the Strategy also recognises that heat is the most difficult decarbonisation challenge facing the country, naming it as one of the ‘Grand Challenges’.

Karen Wood, senior policy advisor to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), speaking at the recent ICOM Spring Conference, said: “Decarbonising our heat is not easy or straightforward. We need to do a lot of work.”

Rufus Ford

Wood commented that: “We are heavily reliant on the gas network. We are looking at how we might move to a low carbon future. There is no single answer, there will have to be a mix.”

In the long-term, the government is considering a number of technologies with potential for decarbonising heat in the UK: 

• Electrification (heat pumps)

• District heating

• Hybrid approach (two different heating technologies and energy sources working together)

• Decarbonising the gas grid (using hydrogen or biogas)

Right now, government is analysing how it can offer a clear post-RHI framework for domestic and non-domestic buildings through to the 2030s. At the moment, almost 70% of the UK’s heat for industry, commercial buildings and homes comes from natural gas.

As the Strategy states: “Meeting our target of reducing emissions by at least 80% by 2050 implies decarbonising nearly all heat in buildings and most industrial processes.”

“One of the key aims is to reduce the barriers to low carbon heating and cooling and sustain a visible supply chain for low carbon heating beyond the RHI,” said Wood.

In the search for alternatives to natural gas, heat networks are an area getting particular attention from government. Also speaking at the ICOM event, Rufus Ford, heat network specialist for BEIS, said: “The benefits of heat networks include the fact that they open up the options on heat sources.

“We have seen examples from Europe that show the fuel mix changes over time and heat networks can accommodate this. The heat sources also tend to be away from fossil fuels to low carbon energy sources,” he added.

Ford pointed out that the Heat Network Development Unit (HNDU) has assisted 130 local authorities and there is a pipeline of projects around the country. There are also £320 millions in funding to be spent up to 2021.

“So far, there are 9 public sector pilot projects which represent about £24 millions of funding,” said Ford. “We will extend that funding in the form of loans and grants to more private sector projects going forward. Our aim is to create a self-sustaining market,” he said.

While recognising the need for change, those involved gas supply and engineering point to the scale of the challenge. Speaking at the ICOM Spring Conference, Ian McCluskey, head of technical services for the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers IGEM) said: “Gas provides 80% of total energy demand in the UK at peak times and there are 23.2 million gas customers across the UK.”

Looking at the physical aspect of this problem, the UK has 284,000 km of pipes transporting 720TWh of gas each year. Over 150,000 new customers are connected to the gas network each year.

Ian McCluskey

IGEM recognises the need for decarbonisation, but points to the gas grid as a resource that could be re-purposed. “The gas network is highly robust, unlike the electrical network,” commented McCluskey. “Any new technology must meet this service expectation from our customers.”

Several projects on use of hydrogen or hybrid approaches are currently underway around the country, including the Didcot Project; HyDeploy; Go Green Gas Project and the Freedom Project. The aim is to replace natural gas, while making the most of existing infrastructure.

McCluskey said: “Transporting 100% hydrogen could decarbonise the existing grid. But it’s never been tried before and as gas engineers our first question is can it be done safely so that our excellent record on safety can be maintained?”

There is no single solution to replace natural gas as the source of our heat and it is considering a range of options.

In 1948, government faced an enormous challenge and we find ourselves in the same position 70 years later. However, the opportunity now is not only to reduce carbon emissions, but to create a more efficient heat delivery system that provides an affordable outcome for all its customers, businesses and consumers alike.

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