Thursday 8 February 2024

Gas industry and (shrinking) critical mass

It may seem quixotic to pick on any one highly suspect facet of the vague 'Net Zero' plans we, along with every other western nation, have to pay lip-service to these days.  But here's one that occurred to me recently: natural gas is essential for balancing the grid - but what if that's the only use it's wanted for?  Would the industry have critical mass in such a scenario?

The UK gas industry is huge (40% of our primary energy) and has been for a very long time, back into Victorian times.  We're really good at it.  Modern UK gas history starts with the first North Sea gas coming ashore in 1967, and the rapid (if chaotic) conversion of the nation's gas system from town gas to natural gas.  As production ramped up we started importing (from Norway, and a small amount of LNG) and have done ever since, although for a brief period - the absolute heyday of our own production - we were net exporters, the export routes being pipelines to Ireland (now horribly dependent on us as their own supplies dwindle) and the Continent**.  Meanwhile, gas had become an entirely new source of fuel for electricity generation (residential heating had previously dominated gas demand, and power generation using gas had been prohibited!); and in several phases the 'Dash(es) for Gas' brought about a substantial new sub-sector: gas-fired power, which systematically ate coal's lunch over a couple of decades, and still hasn't been squeezed out by burgeoning renewables.

And that's because ... it can't be!  At least, not if we're to enjoy electricity on demand, which most of us are quite keen on.  No other source has yet been devised which can so flexibly, easily, cleanly and at scale give us the balance of what we need when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine, and the nukes and biomass aren't anywhere near enough to cover the rest.  Yes, there's pumped hydro and an ever growing army of batteries, and a bit of demand-side response: but gas it is, for as far into the future as anyone can credibly see (notwithstanding Ed Miliband's 'no gas-for-power by 2030' blather).

Right now, gas-for-power isn't only needed for 'peaking' - i.e. as a standby resource for days when wind is minimal, sometimes across the whole of northern Europe at the same time - it's needed for a material share of baseload, too.  If (a very big if) government plans for new nukes come to fruition, and the biomass farce is perpetuated, it's fair to say the baseload amounts needed from gas could diminish over time, as reflected in annual total numbers: that's certainly the 'intention' of both Tory and Labour policy-makers.  (I say 'could', but there are other policy-contingency scenarios I'll come to at the end.)   But let's suppose also that in parallel with the (gradual) big increase they all see in nuclear,  wind and solar power come to pass, they also somehow (gradually) manage to electrify home heating, the other massive demand for gas.  They'd still, like it or not, need gas for peaking, by which we mean, stepping into the breach for days at a time in winter.  Batteries just aren't credible for this at the necessary scale; nor (in this country) pumped hydro; nor imports; nor demand-side management.

Today, given the sheer scale of the routine business of meeting residential (and commercial & industrial) gas demand, the entire industry - from offshore production, pipeline and LNG import facilities, storage facilities, vast and flexible high-pressure grid and extensive distribution network, with engineers to match - can take on the task of providing reliable supplies for peaking in its stride.  But eliminate the regular demand for gas - by electrification, de-industrialisation, "conversion to hydrogen" etc - and it's a very different story.  Intuitively, it's not at all clear a rump gas industry maintained purely for the purpose of sitting on its arse for 300 days in the year, then periodically springing into really large-scale action at relatively short notice to cover a vast shortfall in power generation for maybe a week, is remotely viable.  That's an incredibly small small cost-base to sustain a hugely expensive, capital-intensive standby facility.

We've had a variant of this discussion before, in a very different context.  Yes, the UK is famed for the excellence of its Special Forces.  But many don't adequately recognise that this can only be maintained on the back of conventional forces of a certain critical mass.  Shrink the Army too far, and there'll be no SAS.   I contend that the same is true of the gas industry: without critical mass of day-to-day gas throughput for whatever uses, there'll be no peaking when kalte Dunkelflaute sweeps Europe.

What are the other scenarios I mentioned?  (i) Efforts to electrify home heating are a miserable failure.++  This both reduces power demand from the utopian scenarios, and retains critical mass in the gas industry (I disregard dreams of hydrogen entirely).  (ii)  Gas is still needed for baseload power because the nuke strategy comes to nothing, haha!  

Maybe these latter contingencies are so probable that we can rest easy on everything else I set out...



**When indigenous production decline started in earnest, as I've recounted before, the industry  invested in substantial new LNG import facilities and associated infrastructure in a timely fashion (spontaneously and without subsidy - hey, market mechanisms can work if you let them!); so that the production decline, and then the Putin-induced European gas supply crisis, were both managed rather well. 

++Nobody need doubt their ability to de-industrialise further, of course.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this.

IIRC from 2025 all new builds are to be heat pump powered, unless they've rolled out changed requirements. Chance of implementation zero?

I guess there's just a chance that China might make air cooled lithium salt reactors work, in which case they can sell them to us at vast profit along with everything else. Their great advantages are

a) don't need vast amounts of water
b) can burn nuclear waste and transform to short half-life nucleides - so we won't be searching for suitable long term storage holes - I see Holderness is the newest prospective store.

I commented elsewhere:

Veering off topic, but the UK government energy policy is suicidally stupid.

They want to stop using coal and oil, which in the rest of the world are being burned at record levels, as well as gas – replacing oil and gas heating by electric heat pumps, mostly made in the countries burning coal and oil. They also want Brits to drive electric cars – again mostly made in coal-burning China – Tesla 3s from Shanghai, MGs and Polestars from China.


a) houses aren’t insulated well enough for heat pumps, and radiators and pipes will need replacing – huge job

b) this implies a DOUBLING of electricity generation, which also implies a huge new network of power lines all over our formerly green and not so pleasant land

c) the government tied themselves a decade ago to France’s EDF, whose next-gen nuclear reactors are alas crap, way behind schedule and way over cost. Just to add to their issues, the le Creusot Forge who make all the steel pressure vessels turned out to have been fiddling their quality control figures since 1965!

So UK energy policy is going to hit the buffers big time.

Old Git Carlisle said...

On lesser scale how will there be enough oil based service stations be profitable as the swing to electric really takes off. Will be go back to buying petrol at chemists?

How about spare parts for cars and gas boilers.

Why has whole thing been thought through by now???

Sobers said...

"On lesser scale how will there be enough oil based service stations be profitable as the swing to electric really takes off. Will be go back to buying petrol at chemists?"

In the 1920s and 30s my family on my fathers side had a business selling petrol and charging batteries. Petrol for the rapidly growing number of car and motorbike users, and wet cell batteries for people to run household appliances (such as radios) on if they weren't on the mains. I've still got some of the headed notepaper they used for bills and receipts.

auralay said...

I have long thought that with salt reactors, we are so far behind that we might as well let China do all the work of developing them, then buy a couple, file off the serial numbers and start building reverse engineered copies. I seem to remember that one country made a habit of advancing their technological base that way ...

Matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...

Doesn't matter whether this scenario comes to pass as the gas industry is being killed off by the windfall (30% corporation tax), windfall (10% supplementary charge), windfall (35% EPL) tax on the North Sea producers. Sure, you can offset some investments against tax but no one works for a quarter of their pay.

Nick Drew said...

Matt, marginal tax on North Sea profits in its absolute boom years was higher than that, in both UK and (much higher) in Norway

provided new investments can be set against it, it isn't the killer you're suggesting

iOpener said...

Politicians are, generally speaking, innumerate.
That worked until we became dependant for our very survival on engineering requiring numeracy.

Engineers are, generally speaking, not good at politics.
That worked until we became dependant for our very survival on engineering requiring politics.

Catch 22.

Matt said...

@ ND

It matters when the Nut Zero stupidity has infected banks and other lenders which mean capital is now a lot more expensive for the oilers. If they can't make a decent profit, they can't make expensive repayments. Plus, the lack of investment from pension funds etc (who also like to virtue signal) means that share prices are depressed so that equity raises also won't work.

jim said...

Re infrastructure. Doing up my cottage I was surprised to find old gas pipes for lighting. A bit of research revealed several of the villages round here had a small private gasworks near the rivers. Coal in by barge and gas, coke and tar products out. Started about 1909, amalgamated in about 1928 and nationalised in 1949. Gasholder etc long since gone but the site became light industry post WW2 - then housing.... Villages plumbed into national gas network and no barges since the '60s. The point is that infrastructure does not usually develop as part of a grand plan but instead tends to join up with what existed earlier.

Seems to me the world's politicians don't have any usable tools to prevent climate change - so they will let Nature take its course. They know that any bad effects will mainly affect the poor, not the political class or the rich. Perhaps there is a hope that at some point there will be a 'convenient' moment to exploit the unpleasant effects with a view to putting the brakes on climate change. But not until the poor have suffered a lot and there is a visible danger the political class and the rich will suffer too.

The Just Stop Oil folk have a point but do not offer a politically usable answer. Green industry seems hopelessly uneconomic. Carbon Capture and Carbon Credits seem a politically convenient fraud. We will continue with oil and gas, there is no usable alternative. Yes the downside is very unpleasant but that is where we will go, don't tell anyone.

Anonymous said...

"Nobody need doubt their ability to de-industrialise further, of course."

I just noticed that the diesel/electric trains on our railways used to be made in York, but are now made in Japan (must be the low wages and cheap energy there) and Italy. And they are owned by Hong-Kong based capital !

dearieme said...

"Nut Zero stupidity"

I like that. Were you thinking of Peanuts, Cashyous, ...?

Caeser Hēméra said...

Reality will sink in at some point.

We're looking at electrifying our heating, mostly as we're also looking into solar panels - we've a large roof, a south facing aspect, and high up so the only thing blocking the sun are clouds - and it's a little difficult to figure what is any good. Electric "wallpaper"? IR heaters? Plain old electric heaters? We have one of those in the annexe and it seems to do a good job, but across the main house? Underfloor heating is nice on the feet, but the theory it warms the room up I've yet to see adequately proven in practice.

We'll be keeping the boiler regardless - electric showers are a miserable affair.

We're in a small minority who can consider that though, so I think gas will be fine until the half way point of the century at least, probably beyond.

Of course, if a few more in the 20-40 age range had houses, it wouldn't even be a question. It'll be the landlords paying up, were a few more spared the pain of paying rent, and instead given the wholly different pain of having to maintain your own property, there'd be a little more reticence on the Net Zero things.

One of the upsides to a Starmer government though is, much like Groucho Marx, if you don't like his principles, he has others. I suspect that will come into play and in the near future the Gretas will have to suck it up or vote Tory.

electro-kevin said...

Anything on the Tucker Carlson interview ?

Bill Quango MP said...

Electric heaters are not as good.
I have 4 x £1500 heaters. All timers and temperatures. And they do heat.
But without any pipes, all the floors are cold.

The real problem is the cost.
7p a k/w for gas
29p kilowatt electric.

That’s why only half the house has any heating at all. And it’s only on at for the barest minimum time.
And that costs, in a three bed semi, £4500 a year.

And it’s still cold enough to have ever present winter damp and mould even in the heated areas.

The old, 6 bed, three storey Victorian, stone built, grade 2, wooden windows, plaster walls, draughty doors, townhouse cost only £2500 a year to heat as often and as long as wanted,
That was fifteen, 18ft x 12ft, high ceiling rooms.

Bugger electric for heating.

Mostly because the cost is green taxation.

Anonymous said...

We spend around £1800 on oil and around £1600 on electricity, plus £300-odd on wood to heat a solid walled place with 5 bedrooms.

The electricity only powers LED lights, 2 fridges/2 freezers, domestic appliances - no heating except an old tumble drier used sometimes in winter* and occasional over use, drastically reduced since the air frier arrived.

* though we have discovered that a 165w dehumidifier dries washing pretty well.

Crazy that the electric bill almost matches the heating bill.

Anonymous said...

BQ - keep a look out on UKHotdeals for dehumidifier deals - really pleased with our Meaco and it wasn't outrageously priced.

It tends to live in the coldest bedrooms furthest away from the boiler, but it can also be used for keeping caravans damp-free in winter, drying clothes (I think there's a special setting) and seasoning split logs.

Bill Quango MP said...

Have a dehumidifier in the hallway, which is unheated.

Also, have had cavity wall insulation introduced, just today.
Resisted for a year as that can cause damp in, instead of on, the walls.

electro-kevin said...

Both houses I've owned with cavity wall insulation have had severe condensation in the roof spaces. Keep an eye on it and vent the eves if necessary.

Anonymous said...

Any idea how much the UK's Price Cap on the price of domestic energy is costing HMG? Or is the whole energy pricing mechanism f****d in the UK.

How can the gas industry plan if there is uncertainty about future legislation (to gas boiler or not to gas boiler); profits (with or without windfall taxes); or subsidies to alternative fuels which gas suppliers need to match or consider.

So much for 'the market will decide'

Jeremy Poynton said...

"electro-kevin said...
Both houses I've owned with cavity wall insulation have had severe condensation in the roof spaces. Keep an eye on it and vent the eves if necessary."

The whole idea of cavity walls was to ... you got it... prevent condensation.

It's not the Anthropocene, rather than the Moronopocene... we are ruled by low grade cretins.

Anonymous said...

I must confess I can't see why cavity wall insulation should lead to roof space condensation. Does E-K not have extractor fans in kitchen/bathroom?

However I do have a garage built with insulated floors and cavity wall insulation - but with a metal roof. Lots of condensation, more than in the timber stable. Both buildings "vented" i.e air gap at the eaves.

Is it just the 4 months of rain we've had and the metal garage doors with plenty of room for damp air to get past? The lawn is like a sponge.