Editor’s weekly: Gas future still unsettled

A recent report from ETI suggests gas networks may need to adapt to a diminished role in the future of the energy system, despite efforts to justify their long term relevance.

Editor’s weekly: Gas future still unsettled

The need for whole system thinking about energy has been a consistent thread running through industry debate this year. It was a key theme at the LCNI conference in Manchester (p18) and the raison d’etre for the Future Power System Architecture study.

More recently, the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) has published its interpretation of the need for a holistic approach to energy planning which looks across power, gas and heat networks to optimise sustainability, affordability and security of supply. Its report, UK Networks: Transition Challenges, urges stakeholders to think today about how investment decisions will affect their ability to integrate with other energy players in the next decade.

ETI’s whole system view makes a fascinating read – but not necessarily a comfortable one, especially for gas distributors.

In 2016, several academic studies have argued for a significant long term role for decarbonised gas in the UK’s energy future. At the same time, these studies have sought to debunk government policies centred on the widespread electrification of heat and the decommissioning of much of the UK gas grid.

ETI takes a different stance. Its report certainly supports the idea that gas network will continue to have a role in the future, but the words “decommissioning” and “reduced utilisation” feature prominently in both proposed whole system transition scenarios with regards to gas. One scenario – “Clockwork”, which takes a centralised approach to system integration – would result in “a planned, phased shutdown of the gas distribution network”, from the mid-2020s as home heating transfers to other fuel sources. A more decentralised approach to integration – “Patchwork” – would have a less radical impact, but still suggests that, “in some locations, the gas distribution network is decommissioned”. In other areas it is retained, at lower utilisation.

These words send a clear message that the role of gas networks in the future of our energy system is far from settled. Significant question marks remain over the whole system carbon impact and economics of favoured pathways to gas decarbonisation, such as increased Bio-SNG connections and hydrogen grid conversion.

ETI speaks glowingly about the potential for the gas grid to enable wider energy system storage and flexibility – as well as delivering fuel to important industrial processes. But it is clear that distributors may yet need to steel themselves for a diminishing role in the provision of domestic heat.


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