THE Sunday Telegraph reports that climate change minister Lord Duncan of Springbank is contemplating banning gas central heating to ensure that the UK meets its 2050 zero carbon target. This ill-considered announcement is utter drivel, which is becoming a characteristic of both BoJo’s government and the climate change/zero carbon debate.
First, some facts from the 2018 government Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES):
Of the 1,700 Terawatt hours (TWh) of energy consumed by the UK, 600 TWh was provided by natural gas for heating. That’s both domestic and industrial. (Another 273 TWh of gas was used to generate electricity, but that’s not relevant here.)
By comparison the total amount of electricity produced in the UK in 2018 was 330 TWh, of which half came from fossil fuels. Which raises the questions of where the additional electricity needed if gas is central heating is banned is to come from, and how it is to get from the power station (or wind/solar farm) to the user.
It can really come from only one of three sources: nuclear, solar or wind. The latter two are climate-dependent. As one of the effects of global warming is increasingly active weather (more cloud, more storms and stronger winds) it seems bizarre to choose to rely on them. As I have previously written, we would also need an awful lot of wind turbines (250,000, twenty times the number installed) and solar parks (some 10 per cent of the UK’s agricultural acres in the South). Or about 50 Hinkley Point-sized nuclear power stations.
That’s trivial compared with the problems of storing and distributing electricity. Batteries are expensive, require much energy to make and have a limited life. Getting the electricity to the user is the tough bit. There are 22million houses on mains gas, some 80 per cent of UK homes. If their gas is to be replaced by electricity it may well involve upgrading the entire low voltage distribution for the street – more so if electric battery cars become the norm.
Delivering that by 2050 means converting 730,000 houses per year, which is 3,000 per working day or 375 per working hour for the next 30 years. As yet there is simply not the capacity to deliver that. And it doesn’t sound cheap – it’s an additional cost to producing the electricity.
Nor is it necessary. The problem is not the gas infrastructure, it’s the gas. If we switched from methane to hydrogen we could reuse the infrastructure as most of the grid is hydrogen ready, and the rest is being converted. Those who are concerned about hydrogen should remember that until the late 1990s we used ‘coal gas’ which was about 50 per cent hydrogen. Producing pure hydrogen can be done by electrolysis directly from electricity, with an efficiency of about 60 per cent including compression and distribution. Hydrogen can be stored in the existing gas network, so supplies can be built up in the warm months to cover the cold.
As the minister (or his advisers) should know.
Lord Duncan has a doctorate in palaeontology and a degree in geology. He then became a EU policy wonk and ultimately an MEP. He stood for Parliament in 2017 and lost by 21 votes. His qualification for his current position escapes me. Sorting out zero carbon is not a political thing, it’s a technical and engineering challenge. Just an idea, but maybe it’s time for the Prime Minister to ennoble and appoint some industrial and engineering experts rather than failed political hacks.