Does the UK public truly understand natural gas?

Does the UK public truly understand natural gas?  And could a lack of understanding be a barrier to greater acceptance of onshore shale gas?  We thought it was worth taking a look at.

We are constantly told in the media that we should be turning our backs on fossil fuels and pursuing an entirely renewable energy future.  The Guardian, for instance, is currently spearheading its #keepitintheground fossil fuel divestment campaign aimed at encouraging investors to take their funds out of publicly traded fossil fuel stocks and to put them into renewables investments instead.

In the long-term, of course, nobody could really deny the need for and advantages of generating more of the electricity we use from cleaner, lower and low carbon sources.

But there’s the rub: firstly, NGOs, the media and the ordinary public very often conflate ‘energy’ with ‘electricity’.  And, secondly, there doesn’t seem to be any real recognition of the importance of natural gas in the home.


Where our natural gas comes from

According to the latest statistics published by DECC, 2013 saw the UK consume 792,817 GWh of natural gas.

66% of this was imported, mostly by pipeline from Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway.  But 20% of those imports were of high-CO2 Liqufied Natural Gas (LNG) delivered in ships, mostly from Qatar.

Given that we only met a third of our demand with our own resources, and that a fifth of the gas we imported was LNG – that is subject to all sorts of price volatility and supply disruption risks – it’s clear that we are largely dependent on others for much of the gas we consume. - sources and uses of natural gas in the UK

 What we use natural gas for

In 2013, the data show that only 24% of the gas used in the UK was used to generate electricity.  A far greater proportion – 42% – was used in homes for heating and cooking.

This is hugely important to the entire discussion about how the UK energy mix should look in the decades ahead, because with the exception of biomethane, renewable energy technologies like solar, wind and wave only create electricity.  And so even if we see a vast increase in the deployment of renewables, that isn’t going to make any difference to demand for gas in the home.


The future outlook

Every year, National Grid produces a Future Energy Scenarios report, in which it attempts to forecast the UK energy outlook to 2035, taking account of government policy, world markets, the strength of the economy, technological advances and the deployment of energy technologies, as well as changes in patterns of demand and consumption.

It presents four possible scenarios, including ‘Gone Green’, which it describes as: “a world of high affordability and high sustainability.  The economy is growing, with strong policy and regulation and new environmental targets, all of which are met on time. Sustainability is not restrained by financial limitations as more money is available at both an investment level for energy infrastructure and at a domestic level via disposable income.”  This scenario sees the highest deployment of renewable energy, with it predicted to meet 32% of our total energy needs.

Even in this, its most optimistic Gone Green scenario, National Grid still predicts that annual gas demand in 2035 will be over 705,000 GWh, with demand in homes at 234,000 GWh despite a fall of over 100,000 GWh compared with 2013.

In its Clean British Energy pathway to decarbonising electricity generation by 2030, Friends of the Earth even sees 24% of electricity still being created by burning natural gas.

Whichever way you look at it, natural gas is and will continue to remain vital in the home for the next two decades at the very least, and to a lesser extent in electricity production too.


How could shale gas help?

It’s often claimed that shale gas could only ever meet a very limited proportion of UK gas demand, for a very short period of time, and that it is therefore not worth the effort or risk of extraction.

But whenever this analysis is presented, it is assumed that shale gas will be used to meet 100% of our requirements when, in practice, most experts appear to suggest it is likely to substitute for imported LNG.

According to the British Geological Survey, in its central estimate, the Bowland Shale could contain as much as 1,300 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas, of which it is thought 10% may prove recoverable – or 130 tcf.

The 792,817 GWh gas consumption figure given in the DECC data roughly equates to 3 tcf a year.  On this basis, and assuming shale gas was used to meet all of this demand, it might therefore be able to do so for around 43 years (if demand was to remain broadly static).

But if, as appears likely, UK shale gas is used as a complete replacement for imported LNG, the picture is very different.  In 2013, LNG imports accounted for about 0.39 tcf of the gas we used, which means that the Bowland Shale alone could supply this requirement for over 300 years.

Of course, this assumes that the UK’s existing offshore production remains static, and so do continental imports and patterns of demand – which is implausible in the long-term – but it provides a useful starting point for illustrative purposes.

Apart from being able to meet a greater proportion of our needs ourselves, therefore improving the security of our supplies, there are some attendant climate change benefits available too, regardless of how the gas is ultimately used.  So, for instance, whilst some people claim that shale gas will add to emissions, substituting shale gas for imported LNG would actually help to cut the carbon emissions that the UK is responsible for – we’re going to use the same amount of gas, no matter where it comes from.


Not why shale gas, but why not?

If, as it seems most credible observers accept will be the case, demand for natural gas in home heating and cooking is going to remain high for decades to come, and to a lesser and reducing extent in electricity generation, it seems only sensible to meet some of that demand with onshore natural gas from what look to be substantial deposits of shale.

Producing our shale gas resources would do three things:

Firstly, it would make our energy supplies more secure;

Secondly, it would boost the wider economy through the establishment of a new supply chain and new tax receipts; and

Thirdly, it would avoid the CO2 emissions associated with the production and shipping of LNG.

So the question then is, “if we’re going to continue using large amounts of natural gas for decades, why not use British shale gas instead of high-cost, high-carbon, low-jobs gas from abroad?”


Faced with a greater understanding of where our natural gas comes from, and how it’s used, it’s entirely possible that the public will become more accepting of the need for and clear advantages of  producing natural gas from shale – but someone needs to explain it.