With record gas prices causing turmoil in our energy system, it’s a good time to ask why Britain has become so dependent on gas.
As much as this is a short-term crisis — most of all for those who will struggle to pay their energy bills this winter — it is also a reminder that the UK is still far too reliant on fossil fuels. This is not the first time that the price of fossil fuels has brought economic pain to the UK, as anyone old enough to remember the 1970s can attest to, and the best response in the long term is to stop using them altogether.
Gas may be slightly less damaging to our climate than coal or oil, but it is still a carbon-rich fossil fuel. We need to stop burning it and start leaving it in the ground as soon as we can. The focus at COP26 may be on phasing out coal around the world, but here in the UK we need to turn more of our attention to gas.
We mostly use gas to heat our homes (37% of total gas usage) and to generate electricity (29%); most of the rest is used in industry or lost in transmission.
In the electricity market, it’s important to acknowledge the important role that gas has played in beginning the UK’s move towards net zero. We have more than halved emissions from electricity since 2007, partly by developing wind and solar power, and partly by phasing out coal. Gas has helped both of these transitions. Because gas power plants can be turned on at an hour’s notice,they are well placed to fill the gaps left by wind and solar generation. Although gas plays an important transitional role, we now need to start phasing it out of our electricity mix. The Climate Change Committee recommends phasing out gas entirely by 2035, with 70% of power coming from renewables by then).
But we have made much less progress with the gas we use to heat our homes. Progress in reducing household emissions has been glacial over the last 30 years, and we need to change that rapidly if we are to play our part in halting climate change. Around 85% of us rely on gas boilers, which emit 14% of the UK’s total carbon emissions and leave us exposed to fluctuations in the global gas market.
If every UK home had an Energy Performance Certificate rating of C or better, emissions from home heating could be 40% lower
So how do we stop our homes from using so much carbon? First, we need to make them far more energy efficient. Of the 18 million homes that have an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC), the majority are rated 'D' or worse. If every home in the UK was at EPC rating C or better, emissions from home heating could be 40% lower than they are now. That level of reduction may not be feasible in all homes, but there is a lot of room for improvement.
Second, we need to replace gas boilers and other fossil fuel heating with low-carbon alternatives such as heat pumps. Heat pumps use electricity, but they are far more efficient than gas boilers and our electricity supply should be zero carbon by 2035. Switching to heat pumps is not straightforward — they involve a significant upfront cost, they work best in energy efficient properties, and they provide heat in a different way to boilers — but they are rapidly becoming a more viable option.
Third, we need to improve how we use energy in our homes. One of the reasons we can get such dramatic spikes in wholesale gas prices is that demand is not especially responsive to price increases. It takes some time before energy prices for consumers actually rise, and even when they do many people do not alter how much gas they use. Changing this — either by changing people’s behaviour or by automating energy consumption in our homes — could help us reduce our carbon emissions and limit energy shortages in future.
At Nesta, our mission to build a sustainable future is focused on tackling these challenges to decarbonising home heating. We are using design, data science and behavioural insights to understand what would make people more likely to switch from gas to low-carbon heating. We are working with early adopters to identify the barriers to adopting heat pumps, and exploring how to make the process more appealing. We are also looking into how best to automate energy use in our homes, so that we use more energy when supply is high and prices are low.
Decarbonising our homes will require a monumental effort from government, industry and consumers alike, but the spike in gas prices underlines just how important it is to do it. It would help to secure our long-term future, accelerate our path to net zero and leave us less vulnerable to volatile international markets.