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Karen Fletcher looks at what the UK needs to do to hit the ambitious carbon reduction targets

The UK is committed to significant carbon reductions by 2050 and has been successful in meeting interim targets. However, the low-hanging fruit is looking scarce, so it’s time to aim higher in order to achieve more. The big target? Our gas-dependent heating systems.

The story of heating in the UK is not without its dramatic moments and audacious changes.

For example, in 1966 the UK discovered natural gas on the Continental Shelf and the government decided to move us all away from coal 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.

The aim is to replace natural gas, while making the most of existing infrastructure

Karen Fletcher Karen Fletcher Editor of Modern Building Services

Today we face what could be a similar massive change.

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’.

Looking at the physical aspect of this problem, the UK has 284,000 km of pipes transporting 720TWh of gas annually. Over 150,000 new customers are connected to the gas network each year. To say that we are locked into gas would be an understatement.

Karen Wood, senior policy advisor to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), speaking at the ICOM Spring Conference in April 2018, said: “Decarbonising our heat is not easy or straightforward. We need to do a lot of work.”

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.”

Decarbonising heat

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)

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.

No silver bullet

The aim is to replace natural gas, while making the most of existing infrastructure.

Government is well aware that there is no single solution to replace natural gas as the source of our heat and it is considering a range of options. Table 1 (taken from the Clean Growth Strategy) gives an indication of the sort of analysis being undertaken to look at the likely outcomes of each possible option.

This history of gas use in the UK 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. It’s time for engineers and customers to brace themselves for a change that seems almost inevitable at this point.

Karen Fletcher is Editor of Modern Building Services