Guest Blog: Are there advantages of UK onshore natural gas? Part 1

This is a guest post by Nick Grealy.

Nick Grealy has been the natural gas industry for 24 years and found the first 16 really, really, boring. He sees a role for all energy sources except for coal everywhere. He prefers to produce lower carbon energy, not scenarios and would like to make natural gas boring again. Find him at www.ReImagineGas.com and follow @ReImagineGas

The views express here are Nick’s and not necessarily of MyGridGB.


Although the concept of a dynamic level of carbon intensity in electricity is well known to readers of MyGridGB, natural gas has been left out of the equation, much the same as natural gas has been lumped, excuse the pun, alongside coal and oil as ‘just another fossil fuel’.

Natural gas has a wide range of Carbon Intensity (CI) even within the UK gas grid. The second part of this post will demonstrate how significant that is and how onshore natural gas in the UK is not a threat to emissions but the opposite:  A way forward to decarbonise, as much as possible, UK natural gas supply.  But first, we have to talk about gas in general and try to understand the antipathy some UK greens have against it.

Firstly as this chart from the International Energy Agency shows, natural gas is responsible for less than 20% of world carbon emissions from energy combustion. Natural gas is not perfect. But it’s not perfectly evil either.

At this point,  we also need to  put to rest the widely held, view of how methane leaks from natural gas, and specifically shale gas, obviate lower emissions in combustion and make gas, oil and coal equally destructive. The Environmental Defense Fund for one has exhaustively studied methane emissions and essentially found that while it is no doubt a serious issue, it isn’t one without several solutions. Barack Obama among others, has said we shouldn’t make the perfect of zero carbon renewables the enemy of the good that natural gas replacing coal and diesel can provide. In the UK we had a campaign led by the Guardian which included natural gas in a simplistic movement to Leave It In The Ground. It’s telling how that particular crusade, imposed by former editor Alan Rusbridger ended when his tenure did. That was in a great part due to the opposition of several journalists within the Guardian Energy and Environment team who found it too simplistic. But the damage was done. June 23 2016 in the UK demonstrated how unwise simple slogan binary choices can be.

Due to common failures of the gas industry and journalists who too often seek slogans instead of solutions there is still a widely held view, based more on feelings than figures, that onshore production of UK natural gas is neither necessary or desirable. Sloganeering doesn’t only belong to the right ‘taking back control’ or making America great again. Easy slogans proposing simplistic solutions to complex engineering problems have also invaded the debate among centre left environmentalists.

The argument against UK onshore gas has three strands. It often depends on glib use of the F word as simplistic value signalling. The obsession with the process instead of the product is irrelevant. Yesterday’s breakthrough, becomes today’s mainstream and in shale that date was 2014 when the “unconventional” method of hydraulic fracturing became the new normal when it provided over 50% of US gas production.  In 2017, 90% of all new US gas wells are horizontal, the other part of the shale revolution. Indeed a recent University of Texas study was unable to find evidence of ‘conventional’ gas drilling at all. Thus, in the US at least, natural gas today is produced as a matter of course by “fracking”. It’s as unconventional as making a phone call with a mobile phone to some people was in June 2007 when the iPhone was launched.

The key issue in the UK debate is an outdated, and often overwrought, view of the impact of gas exploration on the countryside. This is the most often cited reason given by shale gas opponents in the various BEIS public attitude tracker polls. The reality is entirely different: the combination of hydraulic fracturing, sub-surface imaging and horizontal drilling that is today’s mainstream method of gas production needs a minimal surface impact in the exploration phase and one that would be almost invisible in the production stage.

I and my partners in London Local Energy for example, anticipate we could produce up to 15 % of London’s natural gas demand from a lone site no larger than, and contained within, a medium sized industrial unit. That unit could drain gas from an underground area of up to 200 square kilometres, but would be almost imperceptible at the surface – especially in our home, one of the most crowded urban areas on earth. Indeed, since it could replace any number of existing brownfield sites, it may well improve London, having far less traffic for example than current uses might allow.

The most important strand of opposition to UK onshore natural gas comes from environmentalists who sometimes see natural gas as an expensive rival that will slow the transition to a low carbon era. That was widely held in the 2010/2015 period, but now that renewables are falling in price too, mainstream academics and organisations such as the Committee on Climate Change have more nuanced, and globally focussed views. Here the US experience  again informs, demonstrating that abundant natural gas and renewables are natural partners. For example, MyGridGB rightly celebrates when wind sometimes exceeds 20% of UK electricity production. But over 20% is an everyday event during overnight periods in the Texas ERCOT region as it also is in the South West Power Pool. There have been several times in the winter of 2016/17 where wind in both grids exceeded the 50% level, a level entirely out of reach in the UK.

As MyGridGB readers well know, but sadly many journalists have yet to, electricity is not energy, especially in a highly populated, high latitude and cold UK. We can’t change the latitude of the UK, but we need to change our attitude toward natural gas.  We have to move on from a gut feeling dislike of natural gas, one where gas can’t be included in the “green team”, and one that’s based on figures.

I’m often regaled, or reviled, on Twitter with news of 100% renewable targets, and sometimes even achieving them, in various places in the world. The sub-text is that if Norway or Costa Rica or Hawaii for three recent examples can aim for 100% renewables, why can’t the UK? Is not shale thus a dinosaur solution? The answer lies not only in attitude and latitude, but also in altitude: Norway and Costa Rica, along with green (and nuclear) Switzerland and Austria, have mountains.  Mountains means abundant hydro power. Latitude means both higher solar gain, but also lower heat demand. Costa Rica has essentially zero heat demand, as does Hawaii. But most of all, they have far lower populations than the UK. High population density means not only high demand, but also precludes land intensive solutions such as solar farms, large wind arrays, and equally,  the high numbers of oil and gas wells once associated with less crowed areas. This is especially true in urban areas. The UK, or at least its journalists, is often heavily invested in a myth of a perfect rural Arcadia, unsullied by modern life, signifier of both the low carbon and the authentic. The reality of course is that cities, where the majority of people choose to live by preference, tread far less lightly on the earth than rural areas.

The success of gas in eliminating coal – and carbon –  from the UK grid, in partnership with efficiency and renewables is well known to readers of MyGridGB.  But power demand is only a third of UK gas use, with residential heat and industrial demand making up approximately equal thirds. Industrial demand is not only the chemical, ceramic, cement, steel and manufacturing sectors, it’s equally vital in food production. Milk has to be pasteurised. Bread needs baking, meat must be processed, coffee needs to be roasted and it is impossible to brew beer without heat. The food is then cooked, at home or away.  Over 90% of UK Michelin starred restaurants use natural gas for cooking, as do almost 60% of homes. Finally, the food is eaten in homes, offices, hospitals and factories that need heat for at least six months of the year. Every day of the year, gas is used for domestic hot water. In London for instance, 2.4% of annual gas demand still occurs during July.

According to Worcester Bosch, the UK’s largest heat equipment provider, who also sell biomass, heat pump and even solar hot water heating, 1.6 million gas central heating systems are replaced or installed in the UK every year. That’s one system every 40 seconds in London alone.

We’re sometimes told we need to invest in new heat networks, and not in gas infrastructure. But the reality is that the UK gas grid is already here – bought and paid for decades ago. The maintenance cost of the network is minimal. Gas is thus not crowding out renewables. There is a good case to be made that the hybrid solution of gas and wind and solar, can be as successful as the Toyota Prius and other vehicle hybrids.

The question then becomes one of where should UK natural gas come from? Before answering this question, another widely held, but erroneous view must be addressed.  Can’t we just use less gas (and electricity)? The answer is that we clearly already do and it’s something tp continually aim for. Each new heating system is far more efficient than any they replace. We use the exact same amount of natural gas in 2015 as we did in 1995 – even though GDP per capita doubled and population rose by 9%. Similarly, we used less gas in 2015 than in 2005. There will always be room for improvement, but the max headroom for gas efficiency is being approached. The trend is downwards, but it’s unlikely be to eternal. Energy efficiency can easily cut a third of UK demand. But gas demand is unlikely to entirely disappear.  A plateau will be reached and the UK will always need some natural gas. The London Energy Plan still sees a 40% role for natural gas in the Zero Carbon 2050 London project for example. The question must be where will that gas come from? If we leave gas under our ground, then whose ground do we choose to take it from. If natural gas production is so dangerous, poisonous or damaging to ourselves, is there not also a moral dimension by displacing it upon others?

Increasingly gas will come from bio-methane, produced from agricultural by products or waste. But even the most optimistic scenarios predict a top range of less than 10% of UK gas production from zero carbon bio-gas. Some predict a role for hydrogen, but even there, much of the hydrogen would need to be reformed from natural gas. We cannot let feelings trump facts: The UK is cold and crowded. Modern life is impossible without large amounts of natural gas in any realistic scenario.There may well be many nibbles or sexy sounding niches that tempt the PR/media machine which will cut natural gas demand, but adding them all together is unlikely to lead to a gas free future.

But what if I am wrong? What if there can be technological great leaps forward in CCS, solar, batteries or modular nuclear? After all, the quantum leap in gas resources this century came from a similar paradigm shift  and inflection point energy “experts” never predicted.

In that case, and may it come one day, then UK onshore natural gas can well afford to shuffle off into a zero carbon future. With the natural gas delivery grid amortised several decades ago, there is minimal infrastructure investment that would soak up investment needed for the perfect carbon free world – if it does in fact  show up.

Onshore natural gas wells can be paid off in months, not years. Off shore operations in the North Sea are incredibly expensive. Shale wells themselves are expensive – but require far less support services of investment in pipelines to hook up supply to demand.  Thus, after paying off the well, it’s found money: onshore gas can disappear as quickly as it arrived if new alternatives present themselves. It’s not exactly correct, but it’s not entirely wrong either, to say that using UK onshore natural gas is akin to taking it out of one hole in the ground (the well) and putting it, after minimum intervention, into any another hole in the ground, the gas mains that deliver gas. The UK has the shortest midstream in the world between producer and customer – it’s one of the key advantages of UK gas. As we’ll see in part two, it is provably the lowest carbon natural gas on earth. If we are, due to latitude and altitude, condemned to use natural gas to heat London, then the lowest carbon natural gas is the route to take.

Not only do feelings trump facts and figures, the antipathy some feel toward gas, stems from ignorance as to where gas actually comes from. It’s ironic that many consumers are obsessed with the provenance of their food, but never of the natural gas which is an often unavoidable second to last part of the process in the farm to table movement. The last part of farm to table is of course the eater. The proof is not only in the pudding: It’s also in the baking of the pudding. Consumers’s are mostly clueless in this regard. In the second part of this article, I’ll demonstrate how, just as electricity doesn’t  spontaneously come out of the wall, heat is the last part of a very long chain. Many people don’t need to – or want to – think about natural gas at all because a whole chain of people think about it a great deal. It’s time to create a new narrative about natural gas based on a synthesis of facts, figures and feelings.

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