Saturday, 22 August 2020

Is the gas industry promoting uncertainty as a delaying tactic?

We have to decarbonise our heating systems, but there are competing options as to how this is best done: electric heat or green gas. Whatever happens this is going to be very disruptive for industry sectors including oil and gas supply and appliance manufacturers - some very large corporations face an existential threat. So it is hardly surprising that the gas industry is lobbying our government intensively, arguing that green gas is a practical, inexpensive alternative to electric heat. It is not clear that they have successfully driven policy decisions in their favour, but it is possible that they have achieved delays to measures that are needed urgently. Or are ministers simply putting off decisions that they believe will be unpopular? As one consultant said (of decarbonising heat policy): Anything that puts people’s bills up is a big issue. And anything involving intervening in people’s homes is a big issue. You’ve got them all. It’d be an absolute car crash. [1]

This blog post is inspired by two journal papers by UK academics Richard Lowes and Bridget Woodman from the University of Exeter, and Jamie Speirs from ICL. You can find them here:

[1] Disruptive and uncertain: Policy makers’ perceptions on UK heat decarbonisation (Energy Policy) 2020

[2] Heating in Great Britain: An incumbent discourse coalition resists an electrifying future (Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions) 2020

As academic papers go, these are very readable. I particularly like the extensive quotes in the first one, one of which you have read in my first paragraph. Both are based around interviews with people who have influence over policy - from Ministers and civil servants to industry reps, 3rd party consultant and NGOs.

Whichever approach we take will be disruptive for home owners
Currently 84% of our homes rely on gas for heating and the electric heat options would mean replacing an awful lot of them with heat pumps. (The rest would mostly get district heating.) Unfortunately a heat pump is rarely a neat and tidy replacement for a gas boiler. It is bigger. It involves bits outside the home (usually a big fan for an air source system, or underground pipes in a ground source). The most efficient ones supply heat at a lower temperature which often means upgrading at least some radiators, a new smart control system: a completely different way of heating your home. This level of disruption has never before been mandated by a government policy: There’s never been a moment when any government said, “You have to do this thing to your house."(quotes from an independent advisor and a political adviser) [1]

On the other hand, the green gas option is hardly a piece of cake. According to the Committee for Climate Change (CCC), sustainable biogas from Anaerobic Digestion would supply only 5% of our heating needs and this would be better deployed for in power stations at peak times - Ecotricity would disagree with that but I think it depends on how you define sustainable (see Heating our homes with bio-gas - how much can we grow?). The green gas being promoted is hydrogen and this means converting our gas grid to supply hydrogen instead of methane. We will need to convert our appliances to burn it, and convert our meters to measure it (but we've only just got a smart gas meter!) and we need to check that the pipework in our homes is safe to use with hydrogen. This means at the very least an engineer to visit and potentially digging up floors to find the pipes. In fact the appliances are probably the easiest bit (Worcester Bosch says: There is no reason why, at similar scale, hydrogen-ready boilers should not reach a similar cost to natural gas boilers today).

All it takes is a couple of horror stories ...
Some of the interviewees expressed concern that a few high profile stories about poor performance of low carbon heating could be a massive deterrent for many consumers. 'all it takes is a couple of horror stories or something to go wrong to really change public perception quite quickly and certain newspapers publishing certain things can (laughs) really shift the dial. So it’s a massive concern for us and that’s for all the options' (quote from a civil servant) [1].

I don't know about you but I have certainly heard stories of heat pumps failing to perform - either not providing sufficient heat or doing so with extremely poor efficiency. I also know people who are happy with their systems but the bad stories are the ones that stick in the mind. If the switch is forced on us by government policy, how many letters will our MPs get complaining that the new system does not work? 

Gas boilers are not immune to teething troubles either. I remember a lot of complaints about condensing boilers when they were relatively new on the scene and prone to icing up. However, minimum efficiency regulations for new boilers effectively forced the switch and it did not take long for plumbers to learn how to fix the problems. Who knows what the teething problems will be for hydrogen boilers?

The Decarbonised Gas Alliance is not transparent about their membership.
The gas industry stakeholders have formed an alliance to lobby for their preferred pathway, which involves hydrogen in the gas grid, formed from methane using carbon capture and storage (CCS) to make it low carbon. The Decarbonised Gas Alliance ( has members from appliance manufacturers (e.g Worcester Bosch quoted above), CCS industry, gas networks, industrial and engineering institutions (including the Institute of Mechanical Engineers), some local governments (Tees Valley Combined Authority), oil and gas supply companies and some academic institutions such as University of Strathclyde Oil and Gas Institute). I got this list from [2] who got it from a presentation to BEIS via one of their interviewees. The website does not seem to have a list of members.

The green gas approach is promoted as a painless transition.
The message put about by proponents of green gas is that it is cheap and presents a painless transition. 'The process will involve minimal disruption for the customer (domestic or commercial) and require no large scale modifications to their property' (quote from a representative of Northern Gas networks) [2]. 'Injecting green gas such as hydrogen into the grid, offers significant cost savings against alternative low carbon heating sources. It is also shown to be the most practical scenario in terms of technical feasibility and, importantly, acceptance from customers and society' ( quote from the Energy Networks Association) [2].

These statements might be true, but we do not know yet. Lowes et al [2] disagree strongly. The cost is very uncertain because it requires large scale rollout of some very new technologies such as CCS. Also although we already have plants for stripping carbon out of methane this will require a scale-up of several orders of magnitude. The conversion process in homes may be easy - but we do not know yet. For example most pipes are copper which should be fine but hydrogen leaks more easily than methane so there could be greater risk. Even if there is not, there is always a risk of leaks and explosions. The first hydrogen explosion is going to be a very big news story. I would not want to be the minister that gets interviewed for that one.

The hydrogen pathway is fraught with uncertainty over cost, GHG emissions and potential technical glitches.

Apart from cost, there are other uncertainties involved with this pathway. Making hydrogen from natural gas cannot be zero carbon even with CCS, if only because of leaks in the gas supply processes before the conversion. Since there is energy required to convert we will need more gas to start with than we would if we used methane directly - perhaps 50% more. Hence more leaks. Estimates for the carbon savings via this pathway vary from 90% to 50%. We need 99% or 100%. The additional methane needs to be sourced from somewhere, which alarms some who already have concerns about security of supply, with North Sea gas in rapid decline and other sources politically unstable [2].

It is possible to source hydrogen other ways, using renewable electricity and water or from biomass sources. However these are more expensive and untried at a large scale, at least in the UK. A few other countries, notably Germany are investing in hydrogen technology development. In fact Germany have allocated $10.3 billion for this, in post Covid-19 recovery stimulus (see Coronavirus: Tracking how the world’s ‘green recovery’ plans aim to cut emissions by Carbon Brief).

Either way, the conversion process is not easily reversible so we have to be very sure before we make the switch. It is a switch, not a gradual adjustment because you can only mix a small amount of hydrogen into the current grid and still be compatible with the existing equipment. The conversion will have to be done one region at a time. There may be technical glitches we have not yet foreseen.

Faced with such a decision - BEIS is collecting more evidence.
Despite the intensive lobbying, clearly BEIS is not convinced. They have not yet decided which is the best pathway forward, and it is most likely that it will be a hybrid approach. 'A year or so ago I’d have said definitely hydrogen is the dominant option now, when people are talking about it in that way, I think now we’re at a slightly different stage. We’ve moved into a more mixed space and potentially more sensible space' (quote from a civil servant). Hybrids can mean some hydrogen and some heat pumps or combination systems. For more information on hybrid heat pumps: see Are hybrid heat pumps the solution for low carbon heating?)
However in the interim they are gathering evidence. On the hydrogen side there are projects such as HyHeat and on the heat pump side there are projects such as CODE that I am working on and lots more - see Unfortunately this takes time. We are already behind the target path set by the CCC.

This delay could be construed as a partial victory for the green gas lobby.
Arguably the delay in decision making could be construed as a partial victory for the green gas lobbyists. Lowes et al remark: Policy makers should be aware that attempts to increase uncertainty may be a strategy used by incumbents to delay the introduction of required decarbonisation policies [2]. (This reminds me of the tobacco industry using similar techniques to delay anti-smoking legislation, and also fossil fuel companies spreading uncertainty about climate change.)

If you were the minister what would you do?
If you were a minister faced with one policy which is very likely to achieve the goals (low carbon heating) but which you also believe has a high risk of generating much unhappiness among voters, or another policy which you are told will be cheap and painless but will take a little longer to get started, and you'd really like to believe that but it does seem rather too good to be true - what would you do?

They are taking a safe approach. As well as gathering evidence they are pushing forward on some no regrets policies such as supporting energy efficiency measures (Green Homes Grant being the latest move), revising building regulations to mandate low carbon heating in new homes (Future homes Consultation), and promoting district heating. Heat pumps are recommended for off-gas regions where hydrogen will not be available anyway. But progress is painfully slow.

So what can we do?

I used to think the hydrogen option was impractical, now I think it is probably practical but I am worried it will take too long to implement. Given that boilers typically last 10-15 years, even if every new boiler installed starting tomorrow was hydrogen ready it would take another 15 years before we could consider switching the first region. We also have to build infrastructure for hydrogen generation and storage and geological storage for the carbon stripped off the methane; check and adapt the transmission pipelines...  

Heat pumps are therefore a low risk option that we cannot afford to ignore, even if we ultimately get a hybrid solution. It is not a magic bullet though and it will take time. As well as installing the heat pumps we will have to upgrade the electricity grid in many places and increase generation capacity. Later on we will need to worry about thermal storage too so that we can reduce the peak time strains on the grid. That is not an issue yet, though it will also allow you to take advantage of cheaper electricity tariffs.

If you agree, then please do consider getting a heat pump for your home - and tell your friends how easy it was. Or if it was not easy, tell them it is worth it anyway to reduce your GHG emissions because we need to get on with it. Tell them there are benefits too - like no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning or gas explosions. Tell your MP this option is not only necessary but acceptable to the voting public. If you'd like to consider the heat pump option I must recommend a webinar I am organising for CCF for 12th October: "Heat pumps for your home". 

If not, lobby your MP and tell him that your home is your castle, heat pumps are too disruptive and they will just have to find an easier way to fix you up with low carbon heating.


  1. Excellent article. Nails all the issues which have been circulating at the back of my mind, as I've wondered how on earth low carbon heat is ever actually going to happen. thanks Nicola

  2. I understand the phase industries have been going through difficult situations. But is there any way in which we can attain energy efficiency for industry? Recently I heard about Keiken Engineering known for its providing technologies designed to cater to the needs of the present-day manufacturers.


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