Natural Gas’ role in the UK’s energy transition to renewables
June 15, 2023
The versatility of natural gas is key to its prominent role in the energy transition, serving as an energy source for all sectors including heating, cooking and industrial applications. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas has a significant advantage over coal, emitting about half the CO2.
This makes it the number one option in the process of stabilizing the introductory path of renewables while reducing carbon emissions. The impact of the COVID pandemic as well as of recent extreme weather events has drawn attention to the climatic and systemic risks that impact energy security.
In the UK, coal generation has been phased out and the existing nuclear fleet of assets are reaching the end of their lifespans with no clear strategy for replacement, this creates an additional need for other technologies to provide a reliable baseload. Natural gas, is easy to store with an existing extensive transmission and distribution network. As a lower-carbon option it stands out as a good candidate to provide an uninterrupted, flexible energy supply in tandem with intermittent output from wind and solar while storage technologies are scaled up and innovative new energy pathways are explored. As shown in the charts below our dependency on gas generating assets is increasing as we transition from the large coal fired base load plants of the past.
In a 2019 report, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) said that the ability of natural gas to provide a relatively low carbon backup at peak energy usage times, rather than play a traditional role of round-the-clock baseload, may prove to be the greatest contribution to the energy transition.
The table below shows how, in the UK, gas is specifically used to balance the output from wind farms. Their outputs are the mirror image of one another, performing an elaborate dance to keep the system balanced and maintain security of supply.
Natural gas is also frequently cited as a driver of the energy transition because of its central role in the scaling up (production and transport) of hydrogen – which the European Union has predicted will play a key role in a future climate-neutral economy.
The EU’s hydrogen policy notes that although the cost of producing ‘green hydrogen’ made entirely using electrolysis powered by renewable electricity is falling, it remains comparatively high. The EU strategy envisions the development of ‘green hydrogen’ as a gradual trajectory, initially including producing hydrogen from natural gas ‘Blue Hydrogen’ made using steam reformation which involves the bringing together of natural gas and steam to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The CO2 from this process is captured and either re-used or sequestered. To enable the UKs vision for alignment with the EUs policy on hydrogen in the short and medium term, hydrogen will be blended into the existing natural gas network. This will reduce the overall CO2 output from natural gas, whilst providing a distribution network for hydrogen which currently does not exist or couldn’t be built in the short to medium term.
In the short to medium term, and in conjunction with renewables and carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), new natural gas developments can complement the decarbonization of the energy sector.
According to the UNECE report, carbon capture, use and storage offers a real prospect for natural gas to work with renewable energy sources on decarbonization. In particular, it helps to address the problem of how to cope with hard-to-abate emissions from heavy industry, notably steel, cement and petrochemicals.
Natural gas can contribute to climate targets and serves as a bridge to overcome technology gaps. In a report published in 2021, the G20 observed that natural gas meets a considerable share of seasonal energy demand in many countries, offering resilience and security of supply in the face of adverse weather and volatile markets. In addition to this short-term role, the group suggested that an extensive roll-out of CCUS technology and hydrogen production in the longer term would enable natural gas to align with a net-zero pathway.