Energy – where we are and what we need to do

Our society is energy hungry. Cutting carbon from this diet is vital. And we mustn’t forget gas!

Decarbonising our electricity supply is an on-going hot issue, and challenging too. For example, the technology is not yet all proven – like the uncertainties of carbon capture and storage (CCS) – and for some technologies the reality is harsh – like maintaining wind turbines and tidal barrages in marine environments. There’s also the big challenge of matching a variable supply of power with actual demand.

If we don’t decarbonise our electricity effectively, then transferring from diesel locomotives and petrol cars to electric vehicles will risk adding to our climate footprint.

At present, according to National Grid’s recent submission to the Transition to Zero Carbon Britain policy working group, about three times as much energy is transmitted through the UK gas grid every day as through the electricity grid. This includes gas being used to produce electricity so let’s assume the gas grid currently supplies twice as much end-use energy as the electricity grid.

If we are going to transfer all this use to electricity then even with some energy efficiencies we’re going to need to build the equivalent of between one and two whole new electricity grids. That’s doubling the numbers of pylons marching across the countryside, digging up thousands of city streets and finding space for new or expanded substations in almost every community.

Is there a less disruptive vision for future UK energy supplies?

Recently there has been a new ‘dash for gas’ in power generation, to the dismay of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups, who have presumed the gas would be shale gas released through fracking. But if our future gas supplies were from renewables not from fossil sources… the whole picture changes.

Encouraging sustainable gas makes sense. Gas is easier to store than electricity. It is portable. It can be a chemical feedstock.

The government provides a feed-in tariff for green gas, as part of the Renewable Heat Incentive. But this is poorly recognised, and not getting much publicity – which is probably why the ‘green’ groups have been making a fuss.

The technical hurdles for green gas are at least as large as for green electricity. We need to increase pressure in this area to ensure that development occurs fast enough to make a seamless transition to a zero carbon 2050. And if we succeed it will mean our energy comes to us underground through our existing gas pipes, and we won’t need to double the number of electricity pylons marching across the country!

* Lucy Care is a member of the Federal Policy Committee, was a councillor in Derby from 1993-2010 and was a General Election Candidate in Derby in 2005 and 2010 She blogs at lucycare.net.

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13 Comments

  • No mention as to what green gas IS! I presume you mean gas produced from aerobic digestion of food, animal and human waste? It would be great if every community had its own anaerobic digester instead of a sewage treatment plant or farm slurry pits, so such waste didn’t have to be moved but it’s not clear if this is what you mean or not.

  • “There’s also the big challenge of matching a variable supply of power with actual demand.” I think the actual challenge is to turn this statement on its head: planning society so we can fit power demand to what is available, be that through smart grids tiered or otherwise variable tariffs to provide financial incentives to e.g. charge cars only overnight and allow their batteries to be discharged slightly to cover peaks in demand on the grid. Even low tech stuff like the national weather forecast having a section telling people which days and times there’ll be most renewable energy available so they can set the timers on their washing machines & dishwashers accordingly. And more importantly for big business to plan their energy hungry processes according to that.

  • jenny barnes 30th Nov '12 - 1:15pm

    There is nothing like enough energy available from food and crop waste to replace fossil gas. Clearly methane can be made from CO2 & Water + energy; but this is just an energy transport method, not a primary energy source. If we’re going to make fossil fuel replacements like that, humanity will need very substantial investment in something like concentrated solar power in deserts. If heavy energy users like aluminium, cement, iron & steel manufacture migrated close to those sources, that saves long haul grid capacity; and if you’re going to chemically engineer fossil fuel replacements from CO2 and water, Kerosene & Diesel fuel are the most valuable, and essential if we are going to carry on flying and having heavy haulage. And if we do want to transport energy chemically, liquid is surely the better way to go, than gas that has to be super cooled to be moved any distance other than in pipes.
    The numbers are important. Not just “can it be done” but how much of it can we do, and what’s the impact at industrial scale.

  • Lucy: On your website you say at one point:
    “Critics of renewables cite these as reasons why they can never replace fossil fuels or nuclear power. But they must,…..”
    Unfortunately, nature and thermodynamics, don’t function in response to the human desires of ‘they must’. A limit, is a limit. Thermodynamics, doesn’t negotiate.
    Society is going to have to adapt to nature, and that 40 year transition ahead of us, is going to be a very deep, and wrenching shock to many. There will be no mums taking their kids to school in 4×4′s powered by electric/renewables. Lifestyles are going to drift back to that akin to the 1940′s, ( if we are lucky! ).

  • emsworthian 30th Nov '12 - 5:12pm

    I’m an active member of Friends of the Earth and an energy specialist and gas is not a renewable or secure source or clean for that matter. When are the Lib Dems going to stop trying to be everything to everybody and renew their green pledges before the Green Party shove us out of sight?

  • Simon Beard 30th Nov '12 - 6:54pm

    This issue isn’t just political, its personal too.If you use gas you should consider switching to a supplier of green gas. Ecotricity offer this at a competative price, but I’m sure other suppliers do too.

  • The thing I fear most in these debates, is a blanket assumption by those who don’t understand about the BTU (bang for buck), content of energy we derive from oil, by assuming that renewables, can just take over from where oil leaves off.
    And to compound that lack of understanding, the cheap ($20), oil has gone, and we have to (now), maintain a society and economy on $110 per barrel oil. I think you and I both know that the economy we have enjoyed for the past 70 years, cannot be kept up with $110 oil, nor with, bio, wind, wave, solar, because these otherwise valuable sources of energy, simply do not have that BTU, ‘bang for buck’, to support what we have come to expect?
    I find this lack of awareness of basic physics within society quite troubling. My hope is that there might be an EROEI, value to the development of Thorium. As an engineer how do you see the development of Thorium reactors working out?

  • David Pollard 30th Nov '12 - 11:11pm

    Two points:- 1. LibDem policy should include the Polonski principle, namely that gas should not be used for heating without first being used to produce electricity. So-called combined heat and power (CHP) is one of the most efficient uses of gas that we have. 2. If gas fired plant replaces coal fired plant, CO2 emissions are halved. And gas turbines can run on hydrogen.

  • jenny barnes 1st Dec '12 - 12:35pm

    There’s a reason we don’t have more CHP systems. If the back end of a turbine is hotter (ie hot enough to provide domestic heating) the efficiency of the electricity production drops. Carnot efficiency, (look it up) is a constraint of the 2nd law of thermodynamics (which always wins). The “waste heat” from electricity generation is exactly the same size as the heat going in – just at very much lower temperature; it’s the temperature drop that drives the turbine. It’s probably more efficient in net terms to generate the electricity at max efficiency in CCGT stations and to use air source heat pump technology for domestic low temperature heat.

    Turbines can indeed run on hydrogen. Which is mostly made from coal – C + 2H2O -> CO2 + 2H2. notice there’s a CO2 output. It can be made (ofc) from electrolysis of water, but thats highly inefficient.

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