Scale is what counts in a net zero energy system

5th Jul 2021


I was chatting to my old boss the other evening, putting the world to right as usual. We discussed a radio programme he was making on COP26 and his insight was telling. He argued that system change will deliver net zero, and although he is no longer my boss, he’s still right.

Let’s take the latest evidence produced by BEIS, the most recent Energy Trends. They deserve a little exploration. So let’s run through some of the key numbers. Domestic gas consumption for Q1, 2021 was 137.1TWh, up from 2020 because of the colder winter and more people working from home. The ability of the gas network to respond to peak demands is a key whole energy system feature that is relatively cheap to manage, delivers across the whole system and keeps us warm. The scale of that flexibility is what matters. For Q3, 2020, domestic gas demand was a mere 23.6 TWh. So the increase between the lowest quarterly demand and highest was 483 per cent, nearly six times the level.

For the same periods, total electricity consumption increased by 19 per cent, from Q3, 2020 64TWh to Q1, 2021 77TWh. Not quite the same scale, and acknowledging this is an essential part of the debate around how we decarbonise heat.

But we need to achieve Net Zero, so let’s look at what Energy Trends tells us about renewable electricity generation. For Q1, 2021 renewable power comprised 41.6 per cent of the total. So we don’t have a zero carbon grid to power “renewable heat”. Using the quarterly average domestic electricity consumption (remember this is without EVs in any large quantities) of 33TWh, only 14 of which would be renewable. Looking ahead, compare this 14TWh of renewable electricity consumed domestically, and that 137TWh of domestic gas consumption looks a very daunting figure.

System change delivers at scale. We have a world-leading gas infrastructure in the UK, built for our needs not others, and only fools would want to discount using it. Delivering low carbon gas, at scale, is exactly the type of system change that will work. And what really matters in public policy, is what works.

Best wishes

Mike Foster, CEO