The government’s policy to promote shale gas as a bridge to a low carbon future is challenged by new research from the UK Energy Research Centre, published today.
The future of natural gas in the UK concludes that gas has only a limited role as a ‘bridging fuel’.
It looked at the place of gas in UK energy if we are to meet our mandatory climate targets. It found that without carbon capture and storage, the scope for gas use in 2050 would be little more than 10% of 2010 levels.
In November 2015, the government scrapped a £1bn competition to develop commercial CCS. And in September, the Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, said in a statement that access to natural gas “for years to come” was a key requirement if the UK was to “successfully transition in the longer term to a low-carbon economy.”
She added: “The Government therefore consider that there is a clear need to seize the opportunity now to explore and test our shale potential.”
This statement has been used to justify shale gas planning applications, most recently by Cuadrilla at the inquiry into its fracking proposals in Lancashire.
But today’s report concluded:
- Gas can play only a modest role as a bridging fuel in the UK between now and 2020
- Without CCS, there is little scope for gas use in power generation beyond 2030
- The economic logic in investing in new combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power stations is undermined
- A second ‘dash for gas’ could compromise the UK’s decarbonisation ambitions
- The UK lacks a clear vision for the future role of gas
Previous research by UKERC published in 2014 found that gas had a bridge role but only in some countries (mostly those that use a lot of coal).
The authors said today’s report confirmed that the scope for a gas bridge in the UK was very limited.
“Modest role to 2020”
One of them, Mike Bradshaw, Professor of Global Energy at Warwick Business School, said:
“A ‘second dash for gas’ may provide some short term gains in reducing emissions but may not be the most cost-effective way forward and may even compromise the UK’s decarbonisation ambitions.”
“If all coal-fired power generation is to be removed by 2025, and we are no longer supporting the development of CCS, policy makers must think carefully about how best to replace that capacity.”
“Gas can play only a modest role between now and 2020, and in the medium to long-term has no role as a bridging fuel because the UK has already exploited a large amount of the decarbonisation potential in the power sector”.
“Economic logic of gas plants undermined”
The authors warned that any new CCGT power stations built to replace coal plants would have to operate at very low load factors in the 2030s and beyond unless they are retrofitted with CCS.
They also cautioned that investors were unlikely to be willing to build this capacity without strong policy incentives in place.
Professor Jim Watson, Director of the UK Energy Research Centre, said:
“Without CCS, there is little scope for gas use in power generation beyond 2030 and it will need to be steadily phased out over the next 35 years, and almost entirely removed by 2050.
“This represents a major challenge in relation to the decarbonisation of domestic heat, and undermines the economic logic of investing in new CCGT gas plants rather than low- or zero-carbon generation in the first place”.
“Clearer vision needed”
The UK has legally binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets in place, requiring an 80% reduction by 2050 from 1990 levels.
The authors said: “Until more low- and zero-carbon energy sources come on stream, we need to consider options for keeping emissions at a manageable level.”
Paul Ekins, Professor of Energy and Environment Policy, UCL Energy Institute, who also worked on the research, said:
“A key challenge will be managing a “soft landing” for the gas industry that keeps sufficient capacity on the mix as its role changes.
“Alternatives to the use of gas outside the power sector, particularly in heating homes, need to be explored urgently. It’s not clear that current policies will achieve this, and we need a much clearer vision of the future role for gas in the UK’s low carbon energy system”.
The research looked at:
- How much gas use was compatible with meeting emissions reduction targets?
- How this gas use would be affected by the availability (or lack) of carbon capture and storage technologies?
- How long the timeframe for the use of gas might be?
- What potential remained for substituting gas for coal in the UK?
Friends of the Earth Energy campaigner, Tony Bosworth, said:
“This report shows that gas is not a long-term solution to our energy problems. It was written before the Paris agreement – which increased our climate ambitions, and so further reduces any long-term role for gas in the UK.”
“Building more gas-fired power stations, as the Government wants, risks locking us into a high carbon future, making it harder to tackle climate change.”
“The real answer to our energy problems is investing more in renewable power and improving energy efficiency.”
We will ask the Department of Energy and Climate Change to comment on the findings.