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Gas - key to resilient energy future

Posted on: 26/04/2017

I thought I would write today – the first ever ‘Resilience Day’, part of Responsible Business Week 2017, about how gas networks make the energy network more resilient and how, as a responsible business, we keep the gas flowing and lights on.

That was illustrated perfectly on Friday, when Britain, for the first day since before the Industrial Revolution (probably about 1760 – a really a mind-bending statistic!) went a day without any electricity being generated by coal.  

Day in and day out, gas plays a major role in heating homes and powering businesses. Remarkably, more than 80% of the UKs heat and power demand at peak times is met by the gas network – both in households for cooking and heating and in efficient gas fired power stations to keep the lights on. Last Friday for example, without coal, gas provided 55% of the electricity generation in the UK. And as coal disappears from the energy mix for good to be replaced by an increasing amount of renewable sources – the importance of gas will increase even further.  The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow so there needs to be ways of supporting and standing in for renewables during the time they’re not generating. 

Some in the energy industry think those gaps can be filled by battery storage – large scale batteries or batteries in homes like Tesla Powerwalls. They’d be charged when renewables produce more than demand (on a sunny day for example). But this technology is expensive, while the amount of batteries required just to support a renewable Cornwall for example would way outstretch global manufacturing capability.

But those gaps can also be filled by the gas network – like they were last week. Instead of storing energy that has been generated in batteries until it’s required the gas network can act as a virtual battery storing gas until the energy is required, when rapid reaction gas fired power stations can kick in. And this is important not only because of gas fired power stations unrivalled flexibility (some can go from cold to full power in 10 minutes) but also because of gases much lower carbon emissions than coal – further reduced if the gas is green gas.

Day to day, it’s easy to think of our network as pipes that the gas flows through – like water pipes. But while gasholders may have disappeared we now store so much more than they used to in the network itself – a technique called line packing. On a daily basis we provide 82GWH of energy storage. To put this in context, an electricity network is testing a 10MWH battery (at a cost of £10,000,000) while at the household level Tesla Powerwall, can store up to 14KWH at a cost of £10,000+ for purchase and installation. Our network supports storage several orders of magnitude more than both these types of battery today, at no additional cost to homes and businesses.

And there are other practical and benefits that the gas network has too. Of course, the gas network was designed to be underground, so it’s resilient in the worst of weather, and while a rogue shovel can, and quite often does, damage the network, on average our customers are interrupted without notice once in 140 years (or for only 28 seconds a year), while the equivalent stat for electricity networks is 40 minutes per year! As the amount of renewable energy on the electricity grid increases, it’s essential that our power generation is as resilient as possible – and gas networks are key to deliver this.

What’s becoming clear – and underpinned by the unique, high resolution energy model my team have built alongside expert consultants, is that gas network is key to creating a future for energy that is affordable, secure and low carbon.  As a country we have challenging carbon targets to meet – and decarbonising electricity generation is an important part of meeting those – and we’re playing, and will continue to play, our part in supporting the development of renewable generation.

Of course, decarbonising heat will have a much larger impact, and that’s a much more complex subject that has (so far) escaped much media attention.  So while Britain’s first day without power generated by coal is important, and it’s a significant step, there is much more to do. And as a responsible business, we’re working hard to drive the agenda and make it clear that we think that gas and gas networks is essential to deliver for customers today and in the future.

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Chris Clarke

Wales & West Utilities Director of Asset Management and HS&E