Could gas offer a solution to grid delays?

The UK's race to decarbonise is on, with a big focus on electrification. Many feel achieving net zero depends on how quickly low-carbon technology such as electric vehicles, heat pumps, and solar and wind energy can be adopted. Yet one crucial concern that's often overlooked is the power demands that electrification brings.

As energy production moves away from fossil fuels and towards renewables, the demand for power following electrification will rise by up to 60 percent, according to the Net Zero Strategy. This increase presents a range of challenges that need to be considered, including how quickly upgrades to the power grid infrastructure can be made to bring renewable projects online and meet these new demands.

Effects of grid delays

The energy industry agrees the UK’s grid connections are no longer fit for purpose. Quite literally, there are not enough power lines to go around. As a result, we’re seeing potentially decade-long waits to connect renewable projects to the electricity grid.

Another major issue is when too much renewable energy is produced for the electricity grid to manage, which leads to wind turbines ceasing generation. In 2020, when consumer demand fell during the coronavirus lockdown, National Grid spent an unprecedented £826 million balancing the grid, primarily in payments to wind farm producers to cease generation.

We have a little over two decades to reach net zero, with hundreds of renewable energy projects facing connection delays that could take up more than half of that time. This will likely result in far-reaching impacts on the country’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. At this point, failure to meet our legal obligations appears to be a very real possibility.

Overhauling power lines is inevitable; we must modernise our power system. The National Grid ESO estimates an investment of £50 billion is needed over the next seven years to upgrade its electricity transmission network. In the meantime, many renewable energy projects are still on hold or lured elsewhere by readily available connections and secured incentives.

What if there was another alternative to support this transition to electrification?

Hydrogen offers a promising solution

One solution for supporting our path to net zero is by introducing hydrogen to the energy mix. A low-carbon gas, such as green hydrogen, could bridge the gap for energy-intensive sectors and provide an energy source where electrification can’t. Utilising green hydrogen alongside renewable energy also offers a promising route to decarbonising the gas network whilst diverting some demand away from the electricity grid until extensive upgrades can be made.

One argument against hydrogen is that renewable electricity should be used directly, rather than for creating green hydrogen, which is produced by using surplus energy from renewable sources. Yet, unlike renewable electricity, green hydrogen can be stored and used to supplement power when demand is high, but renewable production is low. Surely this is a better option than paying renewable electricity generators to stop producing electricity whilst incurring unnecessary balancing costs?

Introducing a hydrogen economy will also require significant investment and there have been concerns about how funding for hydrogen will be raised, such as a levy on energy bills. For the moment, the green hydrogen process is expensive. That might soon change as the cost of renewable energy continues to fall and the price of fossil fuels goes up. It could be that a smaller investment in low carbon gas now could help disperse the £50 billion needed to upgrade the power grid over a longer period, whilst still decarbonising the energy we use to heat and power our homes and businesses.

Gas versus electrification

Until the government decides what role hydrogen will play in the energy transition, it’s unlikely we will properly understand the costs, timeframe, or where funding should come from to support this approach. Whichever route is taken to decarbonise current gas demand, it will need to replace the 738TW of energy that natural gas produces on an annual basis.

While hydrogen isn’t a silver bullet for the energy crisis and climate change, it is a critical part of the bigger energy picture. In the short term, it’s not about gas versus electrification, but a combined discussion on the best way to blend numerous technologies to suit all energy consumption.

The end result needs to ensure renewable electricity production is used in its entirety, and low carbon gas could provide a solution. Furthermore, the funds saved from balancing the grid could be used to expedite grid development and build a robust energy infrastructure and reach decarbonisation targets.