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The role of gas in the future UK energy system

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As the UK transitions to a new energy paradigm, incumbent players in the existing value chain, including gas network operators, face significant challenges to their current business models, and at Delta-ee we’re excited to help these companies to address these challenges.  

There are any number of proposals for a long-term energy system aimed at addressing the energy trilemma.  However, even where there is consensus as to the final shape of the energy system post 2050, there remains significant difference of opinion as to the most practical means of transitioning from today’s system to a fully sustainable one.

The debate is often framed around scenarios in which either electrification or heat networks, and sometimes low carbon gas, contribute to an optimised system.  Indeed, UK energy policy has evolved over the past few years from one in which electrification of heat using heat pumps, through the addition of heat networks in dense urban areas, to the current situation where the role of, primarily low carbon, gas is being considered as part of the mix.

It is unlikely that any system predicated entirely on any one energy vector will offer the best value for money in the long term.  Extensive research and modelling by Delta-ee, has clearly demonstrated the benefits of a ‘balanced transition’ to the new energy system regardless of the shape of the final solution.

However, it is not only in terms of cost benefits or the technical or practical constraints that energy policy needs to be defined; it is equally important to understand the market constraints imposed by the consumer.  In other words, regardless of how economically sensible or technically optimal a solution is; if the consumer is not prepared to embrace the solution, it is unlikely to be implemented effectively.

It is partly for this reason that gas driven heating is seen as a key component in the transition to a new energy system and that solutions based on a decarbonised gas supply are considered so appealing.  Quite apart from this, the retention of high efficiency gas end use technologies not only addresses the needs of consumers, it can also support the electrification of residential heat. This is precisely what the Freedom Project, a large hybrid heat pump trial in South Wales is seeking to explore. Here we have seen Electricity and Gas network players working together to understand if hybridised heating systems can be both practical in delivering carbon and cost reductions to customers, but also appealing, and so far from the work Delta-ee has undertaken as part of the project team the signs are positive regarding acceptance.

Indeed, the assumption that electrification alone can deliver an effective zero carbon solution for all residential heat is misguided. Even as the electricity grid decarbonises, the demand for electricity to supply heat pumps will inevitably coincide with periods of higher than average carbon intensity generation.  This is where hybrids could have a further role (in offering flexible fuel sources), and where other gas based technology, such as CHP in households or at community scale have potential. Technologies such as these can support the grid at times where there are peaks from EV charging or heating demands.

It may well be that gas, whether low carbon or fossil, will retain a long term role as a cost-effective means of supporting an otherwise largely electrified energy system. 

So what are Delta-ee doing? In the UK and Europe we are continuing to deliver impactful and critical insight on the future of gas. By combining the deep insight of our research services, with our bespoke consulting expertise we can offer tailored solutions at the cutting edge of this topic. For network companies, our reach extends beyond demand and technology modelling to supporting key players in understanding the role of flexibility, price signals, optimisation and, critically, how customers will respond, as they plan for transition.

These questions and many others will also be considered as part of the Delta-ee European Heat Summit to be held in Berlin on 14th June, where you can join us to hear more about our activities in this area as well as gaining insights from industry leaders in the sector; more details are available here. 

Find out more about Delta-ee's bespoke consulting services here.

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