Is natural gas the energy bridge for the UK?

DESPITE widespread views that gas plays a key role in the energy transition, unabated gas cannot act as a bridge to a low carbon economy in the UK.

There has been much made of the potential to reduce emissions through closures of old unabated coal fired power stations in favour of new unabated gas power plants.

Current UK government energy policy is clearly pushing a switch from coal to gas for electrical power generation, including the potential for unlocking onshore shale gas.

Natural gas is also currently the primary source of energy for domestic heating in the UK.

Although natural gas has the lowest combustion carbon intensity of the three major fossil fuels, it is still a significant source of CO2 when burned.

The 2008 Climate Change Act makes it UK government duty to ensure CO2 emissions in 2050 are 80% lower than those in 1990.

In 2015 at the Paris Climate Conference, the UK and another 190 countries agreed a target to reduce carbon emissions, reducing the global average temperature rise below 2degC, with a target of achieving 1.5degC.

In order to meet these climate change obligations, UK CO2 emissions must be reduced and new sources of CO2 cannot be built.

In November 2015, the UK government withdrew funding for two CCS projects; one of which was planned at Peterhead using natural gas.

If Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is not progressed, then the use of natural gas must be phased out entirely by 2050; something that won’t happen if all unabated coal power plants are simply replaced with unabated gas power plants.

Building new CCGT (combined cycle gas turbine) gas-fired power stations with CCS could bridge the transition to a low carbon economy, delivering power whilst enabling CO2 emissions reduction targets to be met.

The cost for this is expected to be comparable with offshore wind and new nuclear.

Under these conditions, with CCS, UK gas consumption could be as high as 40-50Bcm/yr.

CCS also presents the potential to decarbonise industrial emissions which cannot be decarbonised by other means.

This will support the retention of some heavy industry in the UK.

Furthermore CCS can enable large scale hydrogen generation to be used as a clean alternative to natural gas to provide low carbon domestic heating.

Market investments in new power generation are currently challenging.

Unabated gas power has been considered one of the safest investment options.

With climate change political and legislative risk, this is no longer the case; unless a parallel CCS project is included.

If we are to meet our climate change obligations we need to either phase out natural gas power generation and natural gas for heating or progress the implementation of CCS with immediate effect.

Unabated gas is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Time has come to look beyond unabated gas and implement CCS or phase out gas.

Unabated gas cannot act as a bridge to a low carbon economy in the UK.