With more efficient homes, the UK would never fear running short of gas: Last week’s brief but unnerving shortfall was a reminder, if any were needed, of the central importance of energy efficiency. Unions and energy-intensive companies have used the episode to call for an urgent re-evaluation of the UK’s gas storage capacity, given that 70% of it was lost with the closure last year of the ageing Rough facility in the North Sea. But a new facility would cost up to £2bn, and industry watchers say the economics of building one don’t stack up. Moreover, energy minister Claire Perry made it unequivocally clear that taxpayers’ money won’t be used to make the numbers work. “Government has no plans to directly support an increase in UK-based gas storage,” she said last week, insisting that there was enough flexibility available through ships and pipelines. So what next? We don’t need a kneejerk response to an event that had little impact beyond the energy markets. But last week’s events should kickstart a national conversation about how the UK keeps warm and tackles climate change. Successive ministers and officials have kicked the issue of how to decarbonise heating down the road. That’s partly because it has not yet become entirely clear which technological approach is best, be it electrification of heating, the use of greener gases such as hydrogen, district heating schemes, or some combination of all three. It’s also partly because, at a time when the debate about energy is fixated on the cost to consumers, no minister wants to stand up and be honest with billpayers – telling them they will need to cough up for a new hydrogen boiler in a decade’s time. One thing last week has clarified, though, is that shifting most of our heating needs off gas and on to electricity through low-carbon options such as heat pumps – which the government was weighing up just five years ago – now looks increasingly fanciful. Electrifying heating also looks almost impossibly hard to do at the same time as electric cars begin to have an impact on demand. Experts think the cars will begin to really take off in the 2020s and make a tangible difference to electricity demand, just when we would need to be greening our heating system. For a national solution, we are left with greener gas options, such as hydrogen produced with carbon capture, or biomethane produced from food waste plants. But it’s early days for such technologies, and big decisions will need to be taken on infrastructure. While a serious conversation starts on the longer term, there is a short-term solution that is affordable and should leave no regrets. There is still no proper, ambitious policy on energy efficiency – a situation that not only looks socially unjust, because the poor spend more of their income on energy than the rich, but looks bad for energy security.
Observer 4th March 2018 read more »