On 8 August, University of Exeter energy policy research Richard Lowes argued that the gas networks and other industry incumbents are “exaggerating the difficulties” of meeting peak heat demand through electrification, as they fight to maintain a role in the low-carbon future. David Smith – chief executive of the Energy Networks Association – responds.

The question of how we decarbonise UK heat demand is perhaps the most difficult energy challenge that we face. It is an issue that has received comparatively little public attention and therefore contributions to this important debate are to be welcomed and engaged with in a constructive way.

The suggestion that full electrification offers a viable solution to decarbonising heat, which accounts for nearly half of our energy demand, is not a new idea. But it is one which has seen waning support in recent years as the implications have come to be better understood and the merits of a whole system approach have become increasingly clear.

The whole system approach considers gas and electricity as well as the interdependence between power, heat, transport and waste. It is an approach which is vital given the scale of the challenge of decarbonising our economy and the uncertainty about how our climate, customer behaviour and new technology will evolve to shape our energy future. Any energy policy which takes a narrow focus in pursuing one solution, as proposed by a full electrification pathway, is dangerous and poses an enormous risk for customers and the future of the UK economy.

The case for a long-term role for gas, alongside electricity, in our energy system is clear and relies on far more than meeting peak heat demand in winter; as important a consideration as that undoubtedly is. At peak times 61 per cent of power, and over 80 per cent of heat and power, is delivered by gas through the network. We also have to keep overall use in mind. In 2016 electricity accounted for just 17.5 per cent of the final energy UK consumers used, compared to 29.4 per cent for gas and 47.5 per cent for petroleum-based products. Decarbonisation through electrification alone would mean much more than just meeting our existing electricity needs through low-carbon generation.

The relative affordability of gas and the reliability of the gas network as a system for transporting energy are equally important factors in demonstrating the essential role for gas across the system. For most consumers, gas is the most affordable way to provide heat. At just 32p per/day per customer, gas already actively assists some consumers in avoiding fuel poverty. It is also hugely reliable: the average consumer suffers an unplanned outage only once every 140 years. Gas is vital to making our whole system robust.

Decarbonising gas

Gas is already supporting decarbonisation by balancing the intermittency of increasing penetration of renewable generation on the electricity network. But looking ahead, the way that we provide heat to homes and businesses and the role of the gas networks will have to change if we are to meet our decarbonisation targets. Given the scale of the challenge, it is likely that decarbonising gas will play an important role, alongside greater electrification in some areas.

We don’t currently know what the future energy system will look like, but all credible alternatives to the status quo should be given proper consideration. That is what gas distribution networks are committed to doing through a broad range of innovation projects looking at decarbonising the gas supplied through our networks. The projects are not just exploring the exciting potential for hydrogen, but also looking at biomethane gases generated from household waste, considering how UK regulations could accommodate a wider range of low carbon gases, and testing smarter heating systems in the home. The opportunity for decarbonised gas is not just restricted to heat with gas already becoming popular in transport and heavy goods vehicles. Waitrose is operating 12 dedicated gas trucks already, and is planning to have over 50 in its fleet by the end of 2017. Decarbonised gas could also play an important role in reducing emissions from heavy industry.

By exploring innovative ways to use existing gas network infrastructure as an energy delivery system we are increasing options for policy-makers. Whilst we cannot know which technologies will provide the best solution in each region, preparing our gas network for low carbon offers a comparatively low-regrets option compared to the risk of pursuing a full electrification pathway which would require a massive amount of investment in increasing generation and reinforcing the electricity network to accommodate heat, as well as transport electrification in the coming years.

Concerns around the cost of this reinforcement, as well as technical feasibility, are some of the reasons why there is a growing body of independent evidence which supports a whole system approach with a significant role for green gas, over a full electrification option. This view is supported by studies from Policy Exchange, KPMG and Imperial College, whilst the Committee on Climate Change has said that investing in the gas network and investigating options for decarbonising gas are important to meet future heat demand.

The responsible way to approach our energy future is through a transparent and collaborative industry effort which puts the interests of customers first. Our gas network is an incredible national asset which already connects 85 per cent of homes and to neglect it would be to take an unacceptable gamble with the future of our economy and the health and wellbeing of society. We need the capacity, storage and flexibility of the gas network, alongside a smart electricity grid, in an integrated energy system if we are to continue to deliver reliable, secure and affordable power, heat and transport for customers in the future.

Read the original comments made by Richard Lowes here