Let me take you back to a time when Britain had just overcome the supreme challenge of World War II.
It was when a newly-elected Labour party was looking to change the way things were done in the post-war era.
In 1948 government revolutionised healthcare with the introduction of the NHS.
And in the same year, it nationalised the country’s gas supplies.
A local business
Surprisingly for people not familiar with the history of gas production and delivery in the UK, 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.
Natural gas discovered
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.
To say this was a major shift in terms of supply and distribution techniques is an understatement
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 ever-greater 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.”
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 decarbon
Electrification (heat pumps)
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.
“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.
One of the major hurdles to decarbonisation is that 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.”
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 below (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.
Emissions removal is a term that refers to the process by which carbon is removed from the atmosphere by plants (biomass) as they grow and when the biomass is used to generate electricity, emissions are captured and stored instead of returning to the atmosphere.
As 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.