In the wake of the delay to signing the Hinkley C contract, there has been heated debate about nuclear and the gap left when coal-fired power stations are decommissioned.
I’m a great supporter of both renewable and nuclear electricity as part of the energy mix. However, for the UK to meet its climate targets by 2025, we need to erect one new wind turbine per hour for the next nine years. These will mostly have to be offshore as, unfortunately, local councils reject some 70 per cent of planning applications for onshore windfarms. We need to up our game!
This monumental challenge is often characterised as “keeping the lights on”. Yet even if the lights stay on, we still have another problem. How do we keep ourselves warm and fed? In a recent survey carried out by the Natural Gas Coalition, 70 per cent of people said that they felt heating and cooking were the most important aspects of energy in their daily lives.
That’s why we need gas. The UK’s maximum demand for electrical power can approach 60 gigawatts at around 6pm on a really cold winter’s day. But at exactly the same moment, 22m homes (84 per cent of us) are using gas central heating while 63 per cent of us cook our dinner using gas. This requires over 300 gigawatts of gas-derived power – five times what is needed to keep the lights on. I’ve yet to see an answer as to how we could meet the challenge of providing this amount of power without using gas.
Even if the UK were to install enough electrical generation capacity to heat all our homes and cook our dinners, we would then face two more problems. First, every household with gas central heating would have to rip out their boiler and radiators and install a completely new system – ground source heat pumps (driven by electricity) with under-floor heating or electric heaters – as it’s not possible simply to replace our gas boilers with an electrically powered equivalent. This would be extremely expensive for each individual consumer.
Second, the National Grid would require significant investment to strengthen it in order to carry the much higher currents to communities for heating – with the prospect of digging up thousands of miles of roads to replace underground cables up and down the country.
Then, from a business perspective, the prospect of running a generating facility that lies idle during the summer months and, indeed, during a lot of the winter – only coming online when the weather is cold enough to increase demand – may not be very attractive.
Natural gas is an essential part of our energy mix and the UK’s home grown gas is a valuable asset. But supplies from the North Sea are dwindling.
We currently send £4.5bn every year – the equivalent of £500,000 every hour – overseas in payment for imported gas. The treatment and transportation processes add an extra 15 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions to every ship-load of imported gas. Investing in producing home grown onshore gas will not only reduce the UK’s global climate impact but also contribute to tax receipts that can then support further investment in renewable electricity generation.
Keeping the lights on is non-negotiable but so is keeping us warm. The UK has an excellent gas infrastructure to provide heating to the vast majority of homes. The gas lies quietly until we need it – complementing the intermittency of wind or solar – and we shouldn’t overlook its potential.