Future proofing the gas network

Gas pipes leading to city horizon at sunset - Energy supply capability

The existing gas pipework in the UK was first used around 200 years ago, to pipe town gas to businesses. Homes were first connected to gas in the 1840s, which meant that residents could replace their oil lamps with gas lights. Electric lighting replaced gas lighting, but by the 1870s, gas was still needed to fuel the gas cookers that were being introduced. It wasn’t until the 1960s that natural gas became a major heating source for homes. Now, as consumer needs continue to evolve, there’s an accompanying need for future proofing the gas network.

Gas now heats about 85% of homes, while the heating and hot water for buildings uses 40% of energy and produces 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. But the UK is shifting towards a low carbon future that can’t be achieved if the current reliance on natural gas continues.

The target set in The Climate Change Act 2008 is for an 80% reduction on 1990s greenhouse gas levels, to be achieved by 2050. The government’s carbon budgets through to 2032 have driven reductions in carbon emissions, but the projection is already that the targets set in the remaining two budgets won’t be met. The shift isn’t happening fast enough to match the commitment set out in The Climate Change Act.

Introducing alternative fuels

So, the continued use of gas is a matter for debate. Government advisors have already recommended that new homes shouldn’t be connected to the grid as of 2025.[1] On the other hand, the Iron Mains Risk Reduction Programme (IMRRP) is already in progress and due to complete in 2032. This is a 30-year programme to replace about 100,000km of old, iron pipes that are hard to repair and subject to leaking, with new, polyethylene pipes that will last until 2050.[2]

Whatever is running through the pipes in 2050 is unlikely to be the natural gas that we’re so familiar with, though. One option is to invest in alternative forms of gas that can travel through the existing pipework. This has the benefit of continuing to make use of a major national asset, the gas network. These alternatives are likely to be from low carbon, sustainable, renewable sources, such as biomethane, bioSNG and hydrogen.

Future proofing the gas network doesn’t just affect businesses and homes. Because the whole energy network is inter-connected, development of new fuels like bioSNG will also broaden transport options. BioSNG could be used to fuel heavy goods vehicles, which would mean a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Or, the UK could move towards more use of renewably sourced electricity for heating and hot water, possibly backed up by a hydrogen gas boiler. This is a potentially more expensive option, as well as needing consumers to make a huge move away from the familiarity of gas. While technology such as air source heat pumps is available for domestic use, it’s not widely known. As well, the cost currently argues against mainstream adoption, although prices are expected to continue to drop.

[1] ‘Climate change: ban gas grid for new homes in six years’. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-47306766. Accessed 21 February 2019.

[2] Paul E. Dodds and Will MacDowell, ‘The Future of the UK Gas Network’, Energy Policy 60 (2013), pp. 305-316.

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