Does net zero mean zero gas?

The electricity industry has been experiencing fundamental change for the past decade, during which time structural changes to the gas industry have been rather more limited. However, this will have to change in the coming years as the move towards net zero sees decarbonisation intensify.

Few would dispute that the use of gas is going to have to change, but there is little agreement as to what form that change will take. At the extreme end, some argue in favour of complete electrification of heating and transport to take advantage of zero carbon generation, although the electricity network reinforcement work and retrofit could prove extremely costly and domestic consumers may struggle to adapt to new heating systems.

The leading option for the retention of a gas industry is hydrogen, which can be used for heating and cooking in a similar manner to natural gas with no CO2 emissions at the point of consumption. Hydrogen also has the benefit of being usable in vehicles, so is potentially a good option for HGVs and other large vehicles for which battery technology is less advanced. However, it would require the adaption or replacement of gas mains, boilers and home appliances, and the hydrogen has to be obtained from somewhere. Producing it via electrolysis is extremely energy intensive and would require yet more investment in clean power, while steam reformation of natural gas necessitates the successful use of carbon capture in addition to an available feedstock.

Recent research by Imperial College London has promoted hybrid heat pumps (air-source heat pumps supplemented by gas firing for rapid response) as a potential step forward in supporting public acceptance of mass electric heating. They would reduce heating emissions by 70-80% and could switch to gas during the morning and evening peaks so as not to contribute to peak electricity demand.

There are certainly plenty of options for where the gas network could go in a net zero world. Cornwall Insight is running two gas training courses over November where you can hear from our experts on how the gas industry operates just now, and where we think it is going. Understanding Today’s GB Gas Market will be held on the 5 November, with GB Gas Markets: From here to 2030 following on 26 November. Discounts are available for multiple bookings across both courses. For more information, contact training@cornwall-insight.com or call Emily Matthews on 01603 542115.

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