Gas: a stepping stone to decarbonisation?

10th November 2013

H2h 3

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  • Renewable ,
  • Generation



Two MPs debate whether gas-fired electricity generation is the key to advancing to a low-carbon energy mix

Dan Byles is the Conservative MP for North Warwickshire and Bedworth

The UK needs to decarbonise. On that point there is little genuine, credible debate. The question for policymakers is not whether to decarbonise, but how. The UK needs to reduce its carbon emissions in a sensible way and at a pace that does not put at risk the security or affordability of its power supply. And this is where the consensus starts to fray.

The call to decarbonise is too often followed by entirely unrealistic proposals around the expansion of renewable energy in an impossible timeframe. Too many people also dramatically underestimate the level of the UK’s current reliance on fossil fuels: 83% of our homes are heated by gas and 70% of UK primary energy in 2012 came from coal and oil – just 1%–2% from wind. The UK is also forecast to double its electricity use by 2050, as transport and domestic heating are increasingly electrified.

We need to significantly expand low-carbon energy generation, but it is not credible to expect renewable technologies to quickly replace such high levels of fossil fuel use, while increasing our overall electricity generation capacity. Around 40% of our electricity still comes from coal, but a combination of ageing plant and the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive (2001/80/EC) will see that capacity fall away over the coming years.

Anyone interested in clean energy should welcome this trend, which will cut not only the amount of carbon produced by burning coal, but sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide too. However, the impact of the pace of closures on energy security could be significant, with Ofgem issuing a series of capacity warnings over the past year. If the UK is going to ensure that it has the generating capacity it needs, we must ensure that some coal plants convert to biomass, while replacing much of the remaining capacity with reliable, flexible and affordable lower-carbon gas generation.

It is worth pointing out that the UK’s record on decarbonisation is a good one. Of the G20 countries, only Germany has reduced emissions by more than the UK over the past 20 years. Despite this, the UK has lower carbon emissions per capita and per unit of GDP than Germany. The UK also has the toughest legally binding emissions reduction targets in the world. Replacing some of our ageing coal plants with gas generation is entirely consistent with maintaining our trajectory of steady and sustainable reductions in CO2.

There isn’t a major industrialised economy on the planet that is seriously planning to move to an entirely renewable energy mix over the short- or medium-term, because it simply isn’t practical. Consider Germany again, often the poster child for renewable energy. While the UK is planning to switch off dirty coal plant and replace its with a lower-carbon mix of gas, nuclear and renewable energy, Germany is planning to switch off 20GW of low-carbon nuclear plant and replace it with 20GW of unabated lignite coal plant.

Our path to a decarbonised future requires a transition period, which, in the short- to medium-term, means replacing coal generation with gas. This will significantly reduce our emissions, while providing us with flexible and reliable electricity generation.

In the longer run, as renewables and a new generation of nuclear plants take on more of the heavy lifting, carbon capture and storage technology should further reduce the emissions footprint of our gas plant, with unabated gas used at much lower load factors for backing up intermittent renewables.

The UK needs to decarbonise, and we will. Gas-fired generation is an essential stepping-stone on the journey.

Caroline Lucas is the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion

While only a handful of increasingly marginalised figures still seriously question the threat of climate change, the political consensus that we need to decarbonise is yet to be translated into a plan of action that will deliver the scale of transformation we need. Current policies aren’t coming anywhere close and some are flatly contradictory.

In the UK, the government’s recent gas strategy outlined plans for as much as 37GW of new electricity capacity to come from gas-powered stations – equivalent to more than 40 new plants. The committee on climate change (CCC) has rightly condemned the strategy as “completely incompatible” with emissions targets, and “plan Z” for our climate.

Of course we won’t achieve the zero-carbon energy future we need overnight, and yes, gas will be required as a bridging fuel, but the creation of new gas-fired stations – the average lifespan of which is 25 years – would keep us tied into a high-carbon infrastructure that would make the Energy Bill target of decarbonisation of our entire electricity supply by 2030 far less likely. So, while the UK’s existing gas stations will continue to operate, they should only do so for short periods, and as backup, rather than baseload.

The other key question is how we source our gas. While the government has been flagwaver-in-chief for fracking to exploit unconventional sources of gas, it has failed to seriously explore the exciting possibilities of “green gas” (biomethane).

And, while the opponents to change talk over-optimistically about the potential of technologies such as carbon capture and storage, they tend to be unduly sceptical about renewables. The cost of onshore wind and hydroelectricity is already matching coal and gas, with prices expected to fall further. Solar is becoming more cost-effective, to the point where financial analysts are talking about its ability to compete with fossil fuels.

Independent energy consultants Ecofys have reported that a worldwide transition to a 100% renewable energy infrastructure would be feasible by 2050 if combined with strategies to improve energy efficiency.

Germany is on course to meet its carbon reduction target far more effectively than the UK. There is a short-term gap, because Germany decided to cease nuclear generation earlier than originally anticipated following the Fukushima disaster, but the big picture is that it has cut emissions by 27% since 1990. Germany also has put in place a long-term programme to phase out both nuclear and coal power, and move to sourcing 80% of its energy from renewables by 2050. It has numerous “100% renewable villages”, which increasingly meet all their electricity and heating needs from local renewables, and export energy to neighbouring cities.

Climate change is by far the most important reason to decarbonise, but we should not forget that there are also sound economic and social reasons to invest in renewables. The UK’s dependence on gas is one of the underlying causes for price increases: the CCC has estimated that electricity bills could be £600 higher in 2050 if we continue to rely on gas.

Investment in renewables will also create jobs. The government’s own offshore valuation report found that by using just 29% of the UK’s offshore resources, the country could become a net exporter of electricity by the middle of this century, creating 145,000 jobs and £62 billion revenue annually.

There is no safe alternative to radically limiting the rate at which we burn fossil fuel. The continuation of gas-fired electricity generation must not be seen as anything more than a temporary bridge to the zero-carbon future we need.

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