The Future of Gas: A Transmission Owner Perspective

What is the future for gas? A simple enough question but one with many potential answers.

What might the future of gas look like for Great Britain? As society faces up to the challenges of tomorrow, innovation and new sources of energy have the potential to change the way the National Transmission System (NTS) is used.

Pauline Walsh, Director, Gas Transmission Owner (GTO), National Grid

What is the future for gas? A simple enough question but one with many potential answers.

It’s a debate that goes to the heart of how National Grid will run the transmission network in years to come, according to Pauline Walsh, Director, Gas Transmission Owner (GTO).

“The debate around the role of gas in our future energy mix is still in its early days,” she said. “However, I’m reminded of the famous Mark Twain quote, following rumours in the press of his demise, when he quipped: ‘The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.’

“The point is that, although gas demand has fallen in recent years, we should not assume that it will fall to zero in the foreseeable future. Every credible scenario suggests that for decades to come we will continue to depend on gas as an important part of our everyday lives. The question is more about how we might use gas differently than we do today and in what form.”

The vital role of gas today

Adrian Jarvis, Head of Business Strategy for GTO, agrees that gas remains a cornerstone of Great Britain’s energy mix:

“Gas currently provides about 52% of our total energy needs and it’s the main way that we heat homes and businesses. The figures are particularly telling at a domestic level: around 90% of our home heating, hot water and cooking needs are met by gas.

“Fast-forward thirty years or so and even though gas demand may decline, it is still expected to be at least 70% of today’s levels. So, whatever decisions we take on energy, gas is going to be a central part of the equation.”

How we keep gas flowing

From a transmission point of view, the National Transmission System (NTS) is the high-pressure network that transports gas across the country and it’s the lifeblood of gas supply for Britain. It runs a bit like the motorway network, with more than 7,600km of pipelines operated at pressures of up to 94 bar. In our role as Gas Transmission Owner, we are responsible for the reliable and secure delivery of gas across Great Britain.

This includes transporting gas from terminals and storage facilities to exit points on the system. The gas reaches 23 million end consumers (via the distribution networks) and it also helps to power the economy via gas fired power stations and directly connected industrial customers.

There is a vast network of infrastructure that is essential in keeping the gas flowing. Dotted around the UK are 24 compressor stations that act as the engines of the NTS, pumping gas to where it’s needed 24/7.

There are also nine large storage sites enabling gas to be stored within the system and meet the large swings in demand that can occur both daily and seasonally. In 2015/16, more than 80 billion cubic metres of gas passed through the NTS. That shows that it’s a complex system and it makes sense for consumers that we maintain and use these assets wisely as the energy markets develop.

The asset challenge

“We also need a network that is fit for the future,” said Adrian. “One of the challenges we face is how to deal with ageing assets that must either be replaced or upgraded. Many of these assets are decades old. It’s a fine balancing act to decide when and where to invest in new infrastructure.

“In the GTO part of our business, we’re continually strengthening the network. This can mean building new assets as well as undertaking a very significant maintenance programme to make sure the whole NTS runs safely, efficiently and reliably.

 “So, that’s today, but what about how we might use the NTS in new and innovative ways in future? Many of the opportunities being discussed are long-term in nature and not yet fully developed. But it is important to have the debate now so that as a society we can make the right decisions. New sources of gas are being developed and the NTS must be equipped to respond to these changes.”

The future of the NTS

One idea could be to use the NTS to support cleaner energy for freight transport. Most road freight in the UK is moved by diesel-powered vehicles. But changes are afoot.

The motor industry is starting to look seriously at using compressed natural gas (CNG) as a replacement for diesel. This is particularly relevant given the announcement by four major cities that they plan to ban diesel vehicles by the middle of the next decade. The move by Athens, Madrid, Mexico City and Paris could have big implications for the transport industry.

“The NTS could play a role here,” said Adrian. “We would still have gas entering the system as it does today. The next step would be to install technology to convert it to CNG allowing it to be transported by tanker to depots around the country.

“Car manufacturers are also making strides in this area, so the potential is clear. We need to understand what our customers need and propose service offerings that are safe, affordable, flexible, reliable and sustainable, as well as being a business opportunity for the company.”

The European gas research group, Groupe Européen de Recherches Gazières (GERG), is working with the European energy community to investigate ways of injecting hydrogen into the existing natural gas network.

In the UK, a three-year trial starts in 2017 which will look in detail at the potential of hydrogen-blended natural gas. Because hydrogen does not give off carbon when it burns, it could have a positive impact on carbon emissions if the technology can be proven at scale to be safe and viable.

There are other rapidly emerging technologies too, including shale gas. Although it’s at the earliest stages of development in the UK, the shale industry in the United States has grown phenomenally. So much so that, for the first time since the 1950s, the US in now exporting gas. The long-term scale of shale production is not yet known, but it’s vital to discuss this so any developments are considered early.

Government and regulatory policy is also evolving, focusing on decarbonisation, different sources of supply and the evolving role the NTS may play as part of an integrated UK energy system and European gas network. These will create exciting challenges and opportunities for the future.

An interconnected world

“The impact on the future of the NTS of such innovations and new sources of gas is not yet clear. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking ahead,” adds Adrian. “That’s the very essence of The Future of Gas debate. Nor should we be insular and look only at what’s happening on our own shores here in the UK. Our energy system does not operate in isolation – we are very much part of a connected Europe which increasingly sees gas flowing across borders and sourced from other parts of the world in a global gas sector.

“There’ll no doubt be complex issues to resolve in response to the Brexit referendum. But change can bring opportunity, so we should focus on working with our customers and stakeholders so we’re all as confident as possible in our preparations for the future.

“So, in summary, this is a good time to be talking about the future of gas. It’s a familiar source of energy for all of us and we must make best use of the gas network in times of huge change across the energy sector!”