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Limited role for gas in UK's low carbon future, says UKERC

23 February 2016

New research highlights ‘lack of a clear vision of the future role for gas’ in the UK’s energy system, and cautions that, without CCS, a second ‘dash for gas’ could compromise decarbonisation ambitions.

From the cover of the new UKERC report

Gas has only a limited role as a ‘bridging fuel’ to a low carbon future, according to new research launched today by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC).  The research also finds that without carbon capture and storage (CCS), the scope for gas use in 2050 is little more than 10 percent of the 2010 level.

Previous research by UKERC published in 2014 found that gas did have a role as a bridge, but only in some countries (mostly those that use a lot of coal). Today’s research confirms that the scope for a gas bridge in the UK is very limited.

The authors caution that any new CCGT gas-fired power stations built to replace coal plants will have to operate at very low load factors in the 2030s and beyond unless they are retrofitted with CCS, and that it is unlikely investors will be willing to build this capacity without strong policy incentives in place.

The UK has legally binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets in place, requiring an 80 percent reduction by 2050 from the level in 1990. But until more low- and zero-carbon energy sources come on stream, we need to consider options for keeping emissions at a manageable level.   
The report asks how much gas use is compatible with meeting emissions reduction targets, how this will be affected by the availability (or lack) of carbon capture and storage technologies, and how long the time frame for the use of gas might be. It also explores the potential role of natural gas in the UK through to 2050, looking at the historical role of coal-to-gas substitution in decarbonising the UK energy system, asking what potential remains, and considering how the role of gas in the energy system might change in future.

"A 'second dash for gas' may provide some short term gains in reducing emissions but may not be the most cost-effective way forward and may even compromise the UK’s decarbonisation ambitions," says Mike Bradshaw, Professor of Global Energy at Warwick Business School and one of the report’s authors. "If all coal-fired power generation is to be removed by 2025, and we are no longer supporting the development of CCS, policy makers must think carefully about how best to replace that capacity. Gas can play only a modest role between now and 2020, and in the medium to long-term has no role as a bridging fuel because the UK has already exploited a large amount of the decarbonisation potential in the power sector."

"Without CCS, there is little scope for gas use in power generation beyond 2030 and it will need to be steadily phased out over the next 35 years, and almost entirely removed by 2050," says Professor Jim Watson, Director of the UK Energy Research Centre. "This represents a major challenge in relation to the decarbonisation of domestic heat, and undermines the economic logic of investing in new CCGT gas plants rather than low- or zero-carbon generation in the first place."
"A key challenge will be managing a 'soft landing' for the gas industry that keeps sufficient capacity on the mix as its role changes," says Paul Ekins, Professor of Energy and Environment Policy, UCL Energy Institute. "Alternatives to the use of gas outside the power sector, particularly in heating homes, need to be explored urgently. It’s not clear that current policies will achieve this, and we need a much clearer vision of the future role for gas in the UK’s low carbon energy system."

The report can be accessed here.

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