‘Britain will need gas to avoid blackouts for decades’
National Gas chief has major concerns about the Government’s decommissioning plans.
October 22, 2023
By Jonathan Leake
The man running Britain’s gas network has said the country will need fossil fuels to prevent blackouts for decades to come despite calls for the Government to begin shutting off the pipes.
Jon Butterworth, chief executive of National Gas, said a growing reliance on intermittent power sources such as wind and solar meant Britain would be increasingly reliant on gas to make up for shortfalls when renewable energy sources are not generating power.
Mr Butterworth said: “In 2022, the wind didn’t blow enough or at all for 262 days. And in those 262 days, we would have had rolling blackouts, or a full blackout across the UK if it wasn’t for gas.”
He believes Britain will still need gas to keep the lights on as far out as 2040.
“I actually think we’ll be moving more gas but we’ll be moving gas to power stations to make electricity rather than to homes.”
His conviction comes despite calls for the Government to begin shutting down the gas network as part of the shift to net zero.
The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), headed by Sir John Armitt, last week called for the UK’s domestic gas network to be decommissioned at a cost of £70bn to encourage people to switch to heat pumps and help the country meet its net zero targets.
The cost of decommissioning would most likely be added to consumer bills but the NIC argues the policy would help halve domestic energy costs by 2050.
The Government plans to replace the UK’s 25 million domestic gas boilers with heat pumps to end our dependence on both gas and global gas prices. That dependence is why energy bills have doubled since 2021.
However, heat pumps need electricity and in a country committing itself to generating most of its power from wind farms, there will be many low wind days when gas is still needed.
Mr Butterworth foresees a time when millions of ‘green’ heat pumps will be whirring away – but using un-green power produced in gas-fired power stations.
He said: “That is actually far less efficient than burning gas in your house. Domestic gas boilers are about 90pc efficient but the best power station is about 50pc efficient.”
Mr Butterworth, whose career began as an apprentice fitter with British Gas, believes that breaking the UK’s gas addiction will be tougher than many realise.
Gas currently provides 38pc of the nation’s energy and we use 76 billion cubic metres of it a year. That equates to 1,100 cubic meters per person – or the volume of 1.5 jumbo jets.
Only a third is used to heat homes. Another third goes to power stations where it generates 40pc of our electricity. The rest generates heat and power for industry. Collectively, gas generates about 150 million tonnes of CO2 a year in Britain.
The Government has made cutting back gas consumption one of the foundations of reaching net zero but Mr Butterworth said he does not anticipate selling less gas in 2040 despite official policy.
He said: “We have as a country invested in intermittent renewable energy, meaning wind. So, when the wind doesn’t blow, the gas transmission system has to replace it, so I don’t see it.
“Gas won’t be used so often but, on the days, it is used there will be exactly the same amount of gas going through the pipes.”
If he is right then gas will be as essential in 2040 as it is now. But by then it won’t be powering our boilers because they will have been ripped out. Heat pumps were installed in 55,000 homes last year but the Government wants to ramp that up to 600,000 a year.
By 2050, he suggests, things may be changing. By that point there should be industrial supplies of hydrogen to fuel the backup power stations – but it all depends on the Government getting those hydrogen factories online.
National Gas came into existence in February this year after National Grid sold a 60pc stake in its Gas Transmission & Metering business to Macquarie Asset Management and British Columbia Investment Management Corporation.
National Gas now runs the UK gas transmission network, the high-pressure pipes take in gas and move it around the country to wherever it’s needed.
Gas reaches UK shores via pipelines from the North Sea and Norway, or on ships as liquefied natural gas from the US, Qatar and elsewhere.
Mr Butterworth is not worried about National Gas’s future in a net zero UK and expects the company to do very well out of the energy transition.
One of its key tasks will be to build two new national gas networks in addition to the high-pressure transmission system that mainly carries natural gas. One will carry hydrogen and the other waste CO2.
The hydrogen will be fed to energy-hungry heavy industries such as power stations, cement works and chemical works to minimise their emissions. The CO2 will be sent northwards to Scotland where it will be pumped into rocks deep beneath the seabed for permanent disposal.
Mr Butterworth said: “For us the National Infrastructure plan is very positive. It even has a map of the future CO2 and hydrogen pipeline systems. It supports our plans for ProjectUnion, which is the first pipeline to run down the east coast, which will be 100pc hydrogen.
“They also support our carbon capture project to take the emissions from Grangemouth refinery in Scotland to the St Fergus terminal, where Shell will then inject it into a depleted store in the North Sea.”
However, Mr Butterworth said calls to decommission the gas network were “concerning” because heat pumps are not suitable for all homes.
He said: “There are 11 million homes that we know from various studies can’t be electrified or fitted with heat pumps. These are city flats, tower blocks, interwar flats in London and so on. There’s no explanation for what they should do.
If you have brilliant insulation a heat pump works great as long as it’s not freezing. If you look at Scandinavia, they have heat pumps in 60-70pc of homes. But they all have wood burning fires too – and they all light the fire in winter to take the edge off the cold. But we don’t have that.
“I used to run the gas emergency service for 10 years and I worry about a bad winter. If hundreds of thousands of people have got heat pumps and then we hit a bad winter we’ll have people that are freezing. I’m genuinely worried.”
Mr Butterworth is also concerned about the future of his former colleagues in the UK’s gas fitter workforce. He fears that the decommissioning of the domestic network will destroy the entire profession.
“The UK has 135,000 gas service engineers, plus 60,000 others working in this sector. The gas engineers are the people that go to people’s houses and fit central heating or come to a breakdown.”
Mr Butterworth believes net zero will benefit some but is concerned that many people will be left behind.
He said: “I just worry about all these things. Not helping jobs, not helping families, not helping industry.
“Everyone should be able to participate in net zero but if you’re talking £15,000 to do a heat pump and insulate your house – that’s out of reach for many people. What will happen to them?”