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Securing the UK’s Energy Future: the role of gas

The UK is facing an energy challenge: how do we achieve an 80% cut in our carbon emissions by 2050, while maintaining a secure supply of energy at an affordable price?

Part of my role as Chief Scientific Advisor for the Department of Energy and Climate Change is to address this challenge by helping to drive forward a plan to meet our climate change targets in 2020 and 2050. It is crucial that decisions to achieve these targets are based on scientific evidence.

So what does the evidence tell us? According to various projections including those from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), if we are to meet our future carbon targets, the UK’s energy supplies should be mostly made up of gas, nuclear, and wind in 2030[1]. Most notable is that gas will continue to play a central role in our energy mix in the coming decades, particularly as we move away from coal for electricity generation. Last month, the Secretary of State highlighted our commitment to phase-out coal by aiming to make the UK the first developed country to take coal off the system by 2025.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to meeting our long-term emissions target is decarbonising our heating system. Heating accounts for 45% of all energy use in the UK, with the majority used for cooking, and to warm our homes and our water [2]. This has resulted in the UK having one of the most extensive gas grids and largest gas boiler markets in the world.

If we are to decarbonise our heating system, low carbon heating technologies need to be as effective as traditional fossil-fuel options in meeting our needs. UK households are used to relatively user-friendly and rapid response boiler based heating systems. Therefore, alongside challenges faced in integrating low carbon solutions within the energy system, they must also meet our needs in terms of cost, scale of disruption, and value delivered.

While we work to increase our low-carbon energy capacity, it is clear we will need gas in the short to medium term. Since 2004, the UK has been a net importer of gas due to the rapid decline of production from the UK Continental Shelf. We are currently importing more than 50% of our gas, with this projected to increase to 75% in 2030 [3]. Importing liquid natural gas is generally more carbon intensive than producing our own home-grown supplies [4].

One possible indigenous source of gas is from UK shale reserves using the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. “Conventional” gas - reserves (such as in the North Sea) are contained in permeable rocks, such as sandstone, and therefore readily flow to the surface when a well is drilled. Shale gas is essentially the same as North Sea gas (i.e. methane) but is trapped in impermeable shale rock. Creating fractures in the rock by fracking enables shale gas to flow.

While some people are concerned about the safety of this procedure, the evidence shows that the shale gas industry can be taken forward safely. Reports by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, and Public Health England all conclude that risks can be safely managed, with best practice enforced through regulation. The UK has more than 50 years’ experience regulating the onshore oil and gas industry, and additional measures implemented through the Infrastructure Act are in place to ensure stringent safety controls.

Shale gas has the potential to reduce our reliance on imported gas; however, we do not yet know the full scale of the UK’s shale resources nor how much can be extracted technically or economically. The British Geological Survey estimates there could be a shale gas resource in the Bowland-Hodder basin (under Northern England) of anything between 822 - 2281 trillion cubic feet, compared to current UK annual gas consumption of around 2.5 tcf. We need more data before we can determine the viability of this industry as not enough is yet known about how much gas may be ultimately produced. Industry needs to conduct exploratory drilling and fracturing before these factors can be estimated.

Securing the UK’s energy future remains one of our biggest challenges. We need to explore avenues to clean energy based on the evidence we have, which shows that gas will play a role in years to come. We must explore the role of shale gas in our wider energy mix alongside new nuclear capacity and wind projects if we are to address this challenge.

[1] Infrastructure and in a low carbon energy system to 2030 – Carbon Capture and Storage Final Report for the Committee on Climate Change – Element Energy Limited, July 2013

[2] Energy Consumption in the UK, 2014

[3] DECC, UK Oil and Gas Production Projections, March 2015

[4] Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction and Use, Mackay-Stone, September 2013

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  1. Comment by Martin Sherring posted on

    The first reference here, to a report on CCS, doesn't seem to be relevant to the text. I was hoping to see something testing whether a significant amount of gas-powered generation is consistent with meeting the 80% reduction in emissions. In particular, the article highlights the high levels of gas already used domestic heating but doesn't give much insight into the "low carbon heating technologies" referred to in the 5th para of this post. There was a sort of a vision of extensive use of heat pumps, but if the electricity for the heat pumps is generated with gas, wouldn't we be better off just burning gas for heat? All of this rather begs the question, "how much gas burning is compatible with the existing climate legislation?" - and the references to shale gas beg the supplementary question, "is the government planning to introduce adequate controls over fugitive methane emissions?".

  2. Comment by Alban Thurston posted on

    The Professor neglects to mention that fracking is rejected by most of Europe on safety & environmental grounds, as well as here by councils such as Lancashire, an inconveniently democratic sentiment which over-centralising Whitehall is intent on steamrollering. Greater rewards would be achieved through serious energy efficiency for Europe's leakiest homes here in the UK; sadly this government has no replacement for the Green Deal. Ignored too in this blog is consideration of district heating schemes, and of renewable heat at home, such as funded by the erstwhile Renewable Heat Incentive. The professor's single reference to 'wind sources' is at odds with this and the previous governments' attack on onshore wind, including repeated planning vetoes, often imposed contrary to local people's wishes. As DECC and its masters at Treasury continue their dash for gas in heat and electricity, and for ruinously expensive nuclear, where is the consideration of Carbon Capture and Storage, the crucial de-carbonising technology for gas, including in heating? Or does the Professor agree with the Chancellor's recent withdrawal of support for CCS? I read his blog on a day when a report funded by the fracking industry is prefaced by former head of the Environment Agency Lord Smith declaring that this government is 'going into reverse on green energy'. What comment does the Professor have?

  3. Comment by John Rigby posted on

    The Chief Scientist's statement seems to be rather more about selling the idea that Britain needs to exploit its shale gas resource than it does about addressing the implications of the Paris Agremeent. We have, as a country, signed up to limiting global temperature increases to 2 degrees with an aspiration to keep that to 1.5 degrees. Such ambition requires very challenging changes to current power generation and energy consumption patterns and yet all the Chief scientist has to say to us is that we need fracked gas. Strange, because the near universal view is that if we are to achieve these challenging targets on temperature, we will need to leave most fossil fuels in the ground. Strange also, because the Comiittee on Climate Change is clear that by 2030, the power sector must have got its average emissions down to 100g per KwH. How does is square with the view that we need new gas sources when the carbon intensity of gas is some four times this figure. Gas use may be fine for the next decade but after that it's a big problem. Interesting also that the Chief Scientist's reference to the work by Mackay and Stone fails to note that their conclusion is that ' without global climate policies new fossil fuel exploitation is likely to lead to an increase in cumulative GHG emissions and the risk of climate change.' Where is the plan for addressing this rather important caveat?
    Could the Chief Scientist provide a rather more rounded statement about how DECC will respond to the CCC's progress report to Parliament ( June 2015) and to the CCC's 5th Carbon Budget report. Both highlight problem areas such as a lack of certainty over the long term policy framework, the need to address the poor performance on expanding low carbon heat networks, the need to implement the zero carbon homes standard without further weakening ( it has been abandoned by government since the June report), the need to tackle poor insulation in buildings and the need to have a large scale commitment to CCS - since also abandoned by government. These seem to me to be rather major issues that need addressing post Paris.

    Finally, could the Chief Scientist explain why in talking about our low carbon energy future, he fails to even mention solar. In Germany, solar's summer performance was such that half of Germany's needs were met by solar on a number of days. Yes, there's a problem with economic storage but that needs a plan. Instead your statement simply doesn't mention solar. Shocking when there is such a widespread commitment to delivering community solar and providing solar on a wide range of commercial rooftops.

    A considered response to Paris that joins the dots and uses the expertise provided by the CCC would serve us all working in this sector rather better than a rather transparent plug for opening up there country to fracking so that we can exploit our 'own' gas.

    • Replies to John Rigby>

      Comment by DECC Gov UK posted on

      In June 2015 the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and the Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) published the seventh progress report on Government’s mitigation activity and the first statutory assessment of the National Adaptation Programme. The Government response addresses the CCC’s 35 detailed recommendations on progress towards meeting carbon budgets. The full Government response can be found at

      Gas will continue to play an important role in the power sector and across the economy in 2030, and could continue to play a significant role in the longer term. This is consistent with meeting Carbon Budgets and reflected in the CCC’s work.

      Today, gas generates around a quarter of our electricity (24%). In the CCC’s power sector scenarios for the fifth carbon budget, gas continues to generate around a quarter of electricity in 2030 (26-27%). These scenarios reach around 100 gCO2/kWh in 2030. The illustrative power sector scenario published as part of DECC’s recent energy projections also shows gas generating just under a quarter of electricity in 2030 with a grid intensity of 100 gCO2/kWh (22%). The role of gas in the longer term is more uncertain.

      The Government confirmed in the 2015 Spending Review that the £1 billion capital funding to support the CCS Competition is no longer available; this was a fiscal decision made in the context of an exceptionally tight Spending Review. The Government continues to have the view that CCS has a potential role in the long-term decarbonisation of the UK and it is also worth noting that new gas plants will be constructed as “carbon capture ready” to enable them to be fitted with CCS as necessary.

  4. Comment by Tony Day posted on

    Professor Loughhead's analysis is correct, but incomplete. Energy can be nether created nor destroyed, only converted from one form to another . Energy supply and demand must always be in balance, albeit they each vary continuously in relation to each other. Therefore, the UK's energy system relies inherently on providing adequate dispatchable energy storage. The UK gas grid provides 2 to 3 orders of magnitude greater dispatchable thermo-chemical energy storage capacity; discharge rate, and discharge ramp rate capability than the electricity grid. Heat demand is far more variable than electricity demand, both instantaneously and inter-seasonally. Peak UK energy flow rate as gas is 5 times greater than peak energy flow rate as electricity. In short, without gas UK's energy system would collapse

    The average wholesale price of gas per unit energy is 1/3rd the wholesale price of electricity. The majority of UK heat consumers use gas. Therefore, until dispatchable energy conversion, storage and transmission as electricity can be deployed at similar scale and cost to gas, HMG is correct to pursue indigenous gas supplies as part of the energy mix needed to solve the energy trilemma.

    UK energy policy since 2000 has been dominated by decarbonisation via electrification. This one sided policy is gradually being 're-set'. The question is: how can gas become a 'destination fuel in a low carbon economy? Other posts refer to the apparent disjoint between HMG's policy supporting Carbon Capture and Storage in the long-run, but withdrawing funding for CCS demonstrations on fossil fuel power generation in the short run. The answer lies in HMG transferring support for deploying high cost offshore CCS on fossil fuel power generation to support for deploying low cost onshore CCS by the UK gas industry.

    The gas and chemicals industries have always been closely inter-linked. CO2 separation was first deployed in UK by ICI on ammonia synthesis in 1913. The international gas industry has been using CCS since the 1970's. The World's largest and longest-running energy conversion plant with CCS is a synthetic gas plant, which has been operating since 1985, using British methane synthesis 9methanation) catalysts.

    A study for the recent Carbon Connect inquiry on decarbonising heat indicated that 80% decarbonisation of UK's current gas supply is possible using an 'all of the above' combination of carbon negative synthetic methane with BECCS; biomethane, BioSNG and fossil Natural Gas supplied via the existing UK gas grid; hydrogen conversion with BECCS supplied via private pipelines, and downstream end user decarbonisation using CCS, tri-generation. CHP, gas heat pumps and gas/electric hybrids, etc.

    The 'key' enabling technology is low cost high pressure carbon negative methane synthesis with BECCS from mixed part biogenic and part fossil solid and liquid low or zero Indirect Land Use Change fuels including: hazardous and non-hazardous wastes of all kinds; biowastes; non-food biomass; coal, petcoke, tyre derived fuel, plastics and biochar, and landfill and slag tip mined materials. The biogenic carbon contained in the synthetic methane injected into the high pressure grid will enable downstream gas users with CCS to benefit from additional carbon negative BECCS credits at no additional cost or inconvenience.

    Existing proven inherently carbon capture ready synthetic methane technology developed by British Gas Corporation between 1955 and 1992 can deliver carbon negative synthetic methane WITH CCS at around 76 to 77% net efficiency at a market competitive target cost of 50p/therm, with a plant gate cost of 99.6% pure supercritical CO2 of 50/t[tonne, a fraction of the cost of deploying CCS on fossil fuel power stations. Because of the use of partly biogenic fuels, and the high process efficiency, CO2 production per unit energy for methane synthesis is 25 to 33% that for fossil fuel power generation.

    Schedule 4 Section 57 of The Energy Act 2013 allows for CCS and power plants to be located separately from each other, with low carbon gas transmitted via the gas grid, which also provides free energy storage. The mothballed ex-British Gas prototype synthetic methane plant, complete with all necessary supporting infrastructure, is sitting disused in Scotland, with a mothballed dual fuel CCGT sitting next to it. A planned converted existing gas to CO2 pipeline runs about 10 miles away. What is not to like?

    Best wishes,