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Green Recovery Review is an ideal opportunity to look again at green gas

The Gas Users Organisation is a non-political organisation, that works with all politicians of all persuasions, and is making representations to all parties about the measures we believe are necessary to protect the interests of gas customers.

The Labour Party has recently invited submissions to its policy review for suggestions of how a green recovery can be achieved, and we have made a submission to that review. Labour’s 2019 manifesto included the following policy for the decarbonisation of domestic heating, which currently accounts for over a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

We will deliver nearly 90% of electricity and 50% of heat from renewable and low-carbon sources by 2030. As part of heat decarbonisation, we will roll out technologies like heat pumps, solar hot water and hydrogen, and invest in district heat networks using waste heat.”

However, the recent election review by Labour Together included evidence that 70% of voters supported a target to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2030, but that “most people simply did not believe that a Labour-led government would in fact deliver real change”.

Now is therefore a good time for the Labour Party to take stock of whether there is a better, more credible way, of achieving net carbon heating for our homes. Especially as targets that were arguably over ambitious even for a government, are not necessarily a sound basis for effective opposition.

There would have been very real challenges not only in practical delivery of Labour’s domestic heating policy, but also in overcoming entirely foreseeable customer resistance. 85% of homes use gas for their heating, and gas is popular because it is clean, convenient, and relatively cheap.

While there is broad general support from the public for the net zero objectives, that support will be hard to sustain if it leads to domestic gas consumers being inconvenienced and worse off.

Frankly, in contrast to gas, heat networks and heat pumps are unpopular options.

Research by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the consumer group Which?, and the Citizens Advice Centres in both Scotland, and in England and Wales, shows that householders have negative experience of heat networks, both in terms of the quality of service, lack of control at a household level, and for a significant minority, higher costs.

Reviews by the Energy Savings Trust, Element Energy for BEIS, and information from other industry sources, show that heat pumps can be prone to system design and commissioning errors that make operation inefficient and expensive. In addition, where customers prefer to cycle their heating so that it comes on twice a day, (the pattern preferred by most UK households), they offer inferior performance.

The logic behind widespread deployment of heat pumps is also undermined by the very laudable ambition in the Labour manifesto to upgrade all homes to the highest energy-efficiency standards. While heat pumps are relatively efficient for space heating, they offer no efficiency advantage for hot water, but that water heating is using expensive electricity, not cheap gas.

For well insulated properties water heating becomes the largest part of energy bills, and therefore moving to heat pumps would increase domestic bills compared to gas; as well as being very costly to install, and inconvenient as new, larger radiators and hot water tanks need to be fitted.

But in terms of credibility, one of the biggest challenges for Labour’s current policy is that as recently as 2016, the Parliamentary Labour Party Energy and Climate Change Committee published the Green Gas Book, which threw doubt over the government’s long term heat strategy which envisages Britain decoupling itself from gas as a heating source, i.e., the electrification of heating over the next thirty years. A criticism which applies just as strongly to the policy in Labour’s even more ambitious 2019 manifesto commitment.

Advocating the electrification of domestic heating demonstrates no clear appreciation of the scale of reinforcement that this would require for the electricity generating and transmission system, and the unsolved, (and possibly unsolvable), technical challenge of storing electricity generated from renewable sources at the necessary volume. In contrast, the gas industry is already based upon storing gas until it is needed.

To cope with peak heating demand in the winter, it is barely plausible that the electricity generation and transmission capability could be sufficiently expanded by 2050, let alone 2030, by renewable sources alone.

However, the Green Gas Book did not just point out a flaw in the government’s strategy, it also provided a viable alternative strategy, which is to maintain the gas network, but to decarbonise it through the use of several, complementary measures. As Dr Alan Whitehead, a former Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister argues in the Green Book:

whilst there is no easy switch with which to wish away mineral gas, there are collectively, a number of what might be as ‘10% solutions’ which between them, go quite a long way towards meeting much of the likely demand for gas as a fuel for domestic and commercial heating. And whilst all of these solutions have different advantages, limitations and drawbacks, it does look as if, collectively, they pose a few gentler and less disruptive challenge than ripping everything out and starting again with heat pumps.”

Some of the contributory partial solutions can be summarised as follows:

  • National Grid suggests that assuming continued improvements in the thermal efficiency of buildings, there could be a reduction of 30% of gas usage by domestic households by 2050. This fits in with Labour’s ambition for improving homes.

  • Renewably sourced methane, Bio-Substitute Natural Gas (bioSYN), has the potential to increase the amount of renewable gas produced in the UK to 100TWh per annum using gasification (the potential to satisfy 50% of that residual domestic gas demand by 2050). Gasification is the process of heating fuel without combustion (like burning toast) to create a mix of gases, including hydrogen, that can then by converted to methane, the same as the natural gas we currently use.

  • Another form of renewably sourced methane, produced by anaerobic digestion, could contribute a further 35Twh. This is the gas produced from decomposition without oxygen, which can be purified to methane.

  • The hydeploy project in Keele has demonstrated that up to 20% carbon free hydrogen can also be introduced into the grid, without modifying existing fittings and equipment.

  • The H21 project shows that it would be viable to have 100% hydrogen on perhaps a city wide basis isolated from the grid, with the future option to switch the whole grid to hydrogen.

It should be noted in addition that:

  • Gasification plants are future proofed with only low risk of becoming stranded assets if the grid later converts to hydrogen, as the same waste and biomass supply chains, gasification, (and potentially, carbon capture and sequestration) processes can be used for both bioSYN and hydrogen production.

  • Producing bioSYN is the best performing option for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from the treatment of municipal waste, potentially having negative carbon impact.

  • Domestic heat customers are very resistant to heat pumps or heat networks but would be happy to use biomethane because it does not require new heating equipment.

There is therefore is a pressing strategic need for government to support the development of a commercial biomethane sector by gasification. This is the best option for meeting the UK’s climate change objectives for the decarbonisation of heating, and once the biomethane manufacturing sector is mature it would support tens of thousands of well-paid jobs, across the regions and nations.

There is existing government support for biomethane from anaerobic digestion, but BEIS are proposing that there will be no foreseeable support for gasification technology, and the subsidies by feed-in-tariffs are being set at a level which will not support the industry as it moves towards volume, lower cost, production. This is half-hearted and lacks the sense of urgency that the climate crisis demands

Supporting only anaerobic digestion is short sighted because there are capacity issues that inhibit feeding gas from this source into the grid, this means that up to 30% of potential projects have failed to go ahead, and investors have been deterred. One plant, at Grindley Farm, ceased operation after just 1500 hours of operation, because it couldn’t deliver its gas to the grid. This issue would not occur with bioSYN.

The government’s strategy to decarbonising heat lacks coherency, but Labour’s policy is also flawed.

The government is looking for market-based solutions for decarbonising heating, but this will not fly because any purely market-based approach will struggle to produce gas at a price competitive with natural gas from fossil sources.

At a global level, the natural gas market continues to prosper and expand, including the huge expansion of non-conventional gas from shale sources in the USA, and the resulting price drop. It is therefore foreseeable that between now and the 2050 target for the UK to decarbonise its heating network, all options will be more expensive than retaining fossil natural gas. Therefore, decarbonisation inevitably requires government intervention to distort market mechanisms.

Once we accept that government support is required, then it would be really helpful for politicians to start speaking out for green gas.

  • Although still in the development stage as a commercial process, BioSYN is produced by mature and well understood technologies. The huge gasification plant at Great Plains, Dakota, has been in commercial operation producing methane from a fossil fuel feedstock (lignite) since 1984.

  • The Gobigas project in Sweden has already established that bioSYN production on a commercial scale is viable, although further refinement of the technology is required.

  • Most technological options for gasification lead to a sufficiently pure carbon dioxide stream to be suitable for carbon capture. The BioSNG demonstration plant in Swindon produced liquid carbon dioxide that was sold to Air Liquide for use in industry. However, there is a glaring gap in government support because CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) is currently not financially rewarded.

  • Government support is required for early stage development of this renewable technology so it can scale up for commercial viability; for the planning of feedstock availability; and to provide subsidies and tariffs that achieve the objectives. To ensure competitive return on investment, producers need to be assured that they will continue to have a market for their gas over the lifetime of the project, where the greater competitiveness of natural gas prices is a long term risk.

The Labour Party’s Policy Forum is currently consulting on options for a Green Recovery. This is an ideal time for the party to look again at the question of how we heat our homes in a green and sustainable way.

Committing to maintaining the current gas industry, but switching to renewably sourced green gas, is the right thing to do. Not only a more achievable option in engineering terms, but one that cuts with the grain of consumer interests.

Read full submission (PDF)

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