Research

Gas has limited role as bridge to low carbon future in UK – new research

West Newton

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?

Reaction

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.

Link to the research 

Warwick Business School blog

3 replies »

  1. This is an interesting piece of work.

    But what it fails to address (based on Ruth’s summary), as do most studies of its kind, is the continuing role for natural gas in home heating (not forgetting that over 80% of UK homes are heated by gas) and beyond that in industrial heating and as a feedstock in essential chemicals manufacture.

    So, even if by 2030 we’ve managed to decarbonise electricity generation and home heating, there will still be a continuing role for large quantities of natural gas in industry.

    The other big opportunity for gas is in transport, which is currently dominated by oil. Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) could have a substantial role to play in powering passenger transport and heavy goods vehicles to help reduce by CO2 and, crucially, NOx and particulate emissions to create cleaner breathing cities.

  2. and see Robert Howarth paper 2014 A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the
    greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas Robert W. Howarth

    Energy Science & Engineering published by the Society of Chemical Industry and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
    This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use,
    distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited

  3. This information is correct. The Chair of the Royal Academy of Engineers said exactly the same last week.
    The government is wrong to pursue shale gas. I disagree with @environmentor completely. Investment should be made to gradually move homes away from gas so they can use other technologies such as ground or air source heat pumps. New houses should not be built to take gas or oil, they should be built for these sort of new technologies, capable of operating on greener technologies/electricity. The government policy is completely wrong – with government policy and investment we can successfully move away from fossil fuels, including gas and what is more we legally are bound to.

    Look at Sweden and other forward looking governments – the UK is behind the times and blindly following the US – which now has the environmental and social problems caused from fracking and also is responsible for a huge spike in methane and over half of the worlds methane levels (60%). Hardly an enviable environmental position.

    There are plenty of fossil fuels in the world, in fact there is a glut, and there will continue to be.

    Gas use is actually falling in the UK.

    And as for energy security – we have been importing nearly half of our coal for the last thirty years from Russia – yet no one raised the issue. We import most of our natural gas from Norway. It is just propaganda by government and the fossil fuel industry to try and push fracking and gas on the public.

    The reality is we can move gradually away from fossil fuels, we can import gas as a bridging fuel to help us achieve this and meet our legally binding targets but we cannot support the use of gas and fracking if we are to do this.

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