The carbon problem
Government has pledged to cut carbon from the UK’s domestic and commercial heating system. It’s a noble objective, but one that poses a series of challenges, says Karen Fletcher
The Climate Change Act (2008) requires an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (relative to 1990 levels) by 2050. Even though the UK has so far been successful in reducing its GHG output, there is a long way to go. One area that shows potential for more savings is heating.
According to government figures, the burning of natural gas for heating contributes 14% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. It seems that the two main routes government is considering is greater use of electricity (produced from low-carbon sources) and alternatives to natural gas.
Both of these courses of action present challenges. At the moment, 70% of our heating is produced from gas, and 13% from electricity. Heat pumps offer a reasonable alternative approach to electric heating for domestic and commercial buildings but moving large numbers of consumers from their ‘traditional’ boilers is no easy task.
The gas network supplies the fuel (mainly natural gas) for heating and hot water for 90% of UK households. It also produces twice the annual energy output of the electricity network each year – and six times more during winter peaks in demand. Plus, the UK gas network is very safe and reliable. No matter how attractive the electric option may seem, therefore, we simply cannot disregard gas as part of our heating future.
The Energy Networks Association has recently supported a report published in February 2019, titled Pressure in the pipeline: Decarbonising the UK’s gas. Written by Bright Blue (which describes itself as ‘an independent think tank and pressure group for liberal conservatism’; and which was described as a ‘liberal Tory think tank’ by The Independent newspaper), the report highlights the main issues in the decarbonisation conundrum.
The thrust of its argument is that we need to reduce our need for energy through efficiency measures in buildings. And that a combination of electrification and use of other low carbon gases should be the future alternative to natural gas: “ Biomethane and hydrogen are especially needed to decarbonise the gas network in the coming decades as the use of unabated natural gas becomes increasingly unviable.”
It is important to note that the report recognises the importance of ‘fuel switching’ which includes electrification, district heat networks, biomass boilers and solar thermal systems. Heat pumps are particularly singled out as an important heating method for the future. However, it is also recognised that they operate best for domestic properties which are already energy efficient – posing a further problem of how to upgrade the ageing domestic building stock if this technology is widely applied.
Gas is therefore seen as a very necessary part of the heating mix. However, using biomethane and hydrogen has its own issues, not least of which is safety. What’s more, while hydrogen production releases almost no GHGs, its manufacture does. Biomethane from anaerobic digestion is unlikely to provide more than 5% of the UK’s biomethane due to a limited supply of wet feedstocks. But it can be produced from dry feedstocks (known as BioSNG plants). However, while National Grid estimates that biomethane could supply 20% of our gas demand, this would reduce its availability for the transport sector.
There is no easy answer to the decarbonisation problem. But changes in our heating systems are going to come, because they have to. In the face of increasing pressure to reduce the effects of global warming, business as usual is not an option. The National Infrastructure Committee (NIC) estimates the cost of decarbonising UK heating at somewhere between £120 to £300 billion up to 2050. The cost of not taking action could be a lot higher. As the report states: “… climate change is an urgent threat that has costly implications for the UK so this report does not shy away from proposing policies that carry a realistic cost.”
Government is under pressure to drive this change. And it should be noted that the current political leadership has been influenced by Bright Blue previously – the organisation has been behind a recognition by this government that it is losing younger voters who are increasingly concerned about the environment.
It is to be hoped that for once, government does not take its usual on-off approach to policy and incentives which have previously (see FiTs) caused so much damage to the low-carbon sector – and damaged the trust of both domestic and commercial consumers.
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