John Morea, chief executive, SGN Energy networks, Gas transmission/distribution, Low-carbon generation, Policy & regulation, Opinion, SGN

There’s no doubt the gas network in Great Britain is one of the most advanced and efficient gas infrastructures in the world, with some 23 million customers connected to 284,000km of pipeline

Almost half (46 per cent) of our energy consumption is for heat, and when you tie that in with the desires of both Scottish and UK governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent on 1990 levels by 2050, the challenge to our industry is there for all to see.

That challenge is to work innovatively together and develop an advanced decarbonised energy system that is not only affordable for customers but brings with it the least possible disruption. And it’s my belief, with many others coming around to this way of thinking, that the UK’s gas networks are perfectly placed to deliver this low-carbon and integrated energy system.

Interestingly, in November 2017 BEIS [the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] said in its clean growth strategy that “decarbonising heat to meet carbon targets” was its most difficult policy and technology challenge. Well, with the strong collaborative approach since taken by gas networks – and support from Ofgem’s innovation incentives – we as an industry are collaborating like never before and making great strides in helping BEIS achieve its clean growth vision.

What’s important today is that our gas network can deliver a range of decarbonisation solutions. Along with the other gas networks, we’ve developed a pathway for gas networks to become 100 per cent low carbon.

I’ll start with biomethane plants, where at SGN alone we’re on track for 250,000 green gas customers by 2021. There’ll soon be 100 plants connected to the country’s gas networks and many more planned. I found it very encouraging when a few months back the Renewable Heat Incentive biomethane tariffs were uplifted, thus providing some of the certainty investors want, giving them confidence to progress related technologies. As a result, up to 50 further plants could come online across the country in the next couple of years.

Another source of green gas being developed is bio-SNG [bio-synthetic natural gas]. Here, Cadent has been supporting a trial in Swindon using game-changing gasification technology to make BioSNG from household black bag waste.

Our own “Opening-up the gas specification” project, which took place in Oban in the west of Scotland, clearly showed that the UK’s gas networks have the capability to safely transport a wider range of gases than currently allowed. And most importantly, without the need for expensive processing.

Of course, all this brings with it more opportunities for biomethane and other green gasses and one in particular: hydrogen.

The first option for hydrogen is to blend it into the mix of gasses. But there’s a problem because current gas quality regulations (from the North Sea era) allow only 0.1 per cent hydrogen to be mixed in. Hardly anything at all. Cadent is now leading on Hydeploy, which is looking to blend up to 20 per cent hydrogen on Keele University’s private gas network. The follow-on project Hydeploy 2, which I was very pleased to see was recently awarded some Ofgem innovation funding, will look to trial the same blend on a public network.

The industry is now in full collaboration mode and looking to create bespoke gas networks that have all the carbon removed. And this could be achieved through re-purposing parts of the gas grid to carry 100 per cent hydrogen. Our own H100 project is looking to construct the UK’s first purpose-built hydrogen network at a location in Scotland to demonstrate safe and efficient delivery of 100 per cent hydrogen. Planning for that is progressing well.

One thing all our studies consistently show is that the decarbonising of gas is the most cost-efficient pathway for cutting heat-related emissions.

Transport

I think it’s fair to say transport isn’t a traditional hunting ground for gas networks, but when you consider that 25 per cent of road transport emissions are from diesel HGVs, it seems obvious that gas or hydrogen vehicles could have a very important role to play.

Around the country, we’re already seeing HGVs and buses convert to “compressed natural gas”, and I’m sure that when we see hydrogen become more readily available we’ll see it used extensively for transport.

While hydrogen is making technological leaps, both in blending and possible use in dedicated networks, it’s not the only game in town. Come 2050 we’ll need to have a fully integrated and multi-faceted energy industry where blended gas in networks plays a significant role alongside heat pumps, strategically placed hydrogen networks and with district heating playing a part.

What we now urgently need to support a low, or even a no-carbon Britain are two things. First, a process of long-term total energy planning – and second, we need to ensure the regulatory settlements look to the long term. These will help our industry attract the further investment needed to bring us more innovation, creating transformation, to ultimately deliver decarbonisation.

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