Pipe Dreams: How gas-focused energy efficiency improves National Security

Tim Yeo MP, Chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, says the UK must start thinking strategically about its energy security and storage capacity in support of the strategic defence and security review.

Watch the news tonight and you’re certain to hear the latest scare to national security, from nuclear intent regimes to dangerous preachers. Others just don’t make us sit up and take note quite like the headline-grabbing baddies. Can you imagine the 10 o’clock news leading with gas storage problems? Me neither. But if we run out of gas or electric, how scary would that be? To my mind, energy security is national security, as you can’t have one without the other…

The Energy and Climate Change Committee is concerned about the UK’s energy security, its dangerously low level of 14 days’ gas storage capacity, the near redundancy of our ageing power generation capacity, the essential need for 19GWs of new gas based electrical generating capacity and how Building Regulations and new energy efficiency measures would reduce our dependency on imported fuels.

Over the past eight years, I have been focused on the issues of energy efficiency and ‘outcome’ based regulations which I believe is the only way to lead the UK through increased energy costs and resource competition.

My message to Tim Yeo and the Committee is simple. I agree that we absolutely need energy security indicators and some that they might consider include:

1. Promote the take-up of affordable energy efficiency measures.

2. Focus on reducing dynamic energy consumption in appliances such as gas heating and hot water boilers.

3. Challenge the industry to invent energy efficient solutions that address seasonality by reducing winter energy consumption as a priority.

4. Help expand the energy supplier market to create new business models that reward consumers for taking energy efficiency measures and lowering consumption.

5. Support energy saving innovation such as passive flue gas heat recovery systems that help reduce fuel poverty and improve national security.

Energy is national security, without it our systems can’t operate. Today our society is powered mainly by oil, coal, gas and nuclear. These are supplemented by a small amount of alternative energy such as wind and solar, but as yet these aren’t the panacea people had hoped for. For the next 20 years or so we need a mono-energy strategy, primarily oil for transport and gas for most else including heating and hot water. Think about it: even electric cars will run on gas, given that the majority of our primary electrical energy will come from gas.

We really don’t have much alternative as the scale and cost of change needed to switch 20 million plus homes, 28,000 schools and 2,500 major towns and cities is virtually out of our lifetime’s reach, especially as there’s still no proper tick in the box regarding technical issues and cost benefits for what comes next.

The UK needs to do everything possible to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and energy imports that lower our global competitiveness.

Promote the take-up of affordable energy efficiency measures

Reducing our energy consumption through improved energy efficiency dramatically increases our chances of success in obtaining the quantity of energy we need in the future. The Government must switch its focus to addressing seasonality, as our energy bills are primarily in the winter not the summer. For the sake of our energy security we need to address the winter bill.

Our national strategy to date has been focused on carbon savings as opposed to energy efficiency, although I am pleased to see energy efficiency hitting the headlines more often now. Some studies have shown that around 50% of all the gas needed for our heating and hot water needs could come from waste treatment plants. Given that it’s possible to reduce gas consumption across the UK for heating and hot water by as much as 50% through simple energy efficiency measures, based around improvements made in gas boiler technology, you could argue that our actual needs for imported energy could easily reduce, excluding the increased gas volumes required for the new power stations that are a necessity at this time.

Support energy saving innovation

Some aspects of regulations are slow to change. As a result, new developments and understanding in energy efficiency are held back as they are perceived as going against current industry best practice. The energy labelling of heating and hot water boilers is a prime example of this. Even A rated boilers are not as efficient as they could be, wasting energy up the flue. The consumer believes they are making maximum energy savings due to the A rate label. However, using simple ‘passive flue gas heat recovery systems’, recognised in Building Regulations but not as yet compulsory, would bring a far greater reduction in energy bills.

If boilers installed in the UK each year were as efficient as they could be, within three years they would save the equivalent additional annual gas required to operate a 1GW power station. A conservative estimate is that around 20 million boilers will be replaced during the next decade, a gas saving for about 5GW power stations.

Focus on reducing dynamic energy consumption

Having 14 days of gas storage is one thing, distributing this to all parts of the country is another. Distribution of energy is, in my view, the weakest link in our energy chain given that there is only so much gas you can get down a pipe before the technical problems become the square of the root cause. Imagine a large hall filled with people and somebody shouts fire. Everybody flees to leave the hall through the same doorway – you can imagine the bottle neck that soon appears and as a consequence the system of passing safely through the door fails.

Gas supply has the same problem, as everybody turns on the heating and hot water in the morning and the UK distribution network has to deliver about 30% of the day’s national energy in our first hour of the day. Effectively all our gas is trying to get through the pipe at the same time, placing real pressure on the resilience of supply.

Transco, who manage the gas supply network, are at this moment pumping up the volume in the gas network by replacing all the ageing, low pressure metal gas pipes in the ground with new plastic yellow pipe that will allow for increased gas pressure to cater for increased loads.

However this comes at a cost as now we have to burn gas to help keep the gas moving. Without the benefit of the heat from the ground it’s now more difficult to keep gas in a boiled state; in the new plastic gas mains the heat absorption through metal gas valves can cause them to freeze and block the gas supply. If you’ve ever used a camping gas or one of those red propane cylinders you will sometimes see the bottom of the gas cylinder starting to freeze which is a result of insufficient heat absorption. Or you could put it another way, you’re overusing the supply and eventually whatever you’re using will stop working. Imagine that the gas bottle is now the gas pipe in the road and instead of metal which likes to transfer heat from the ground to the gas we now have plastic that doesn’t. Hence the need to burn gas to heat gas in the network. What this means, in short, is that we need to reduce our dynamic loads so that we can service more users for the same gas supply infrastructure. Reducing our risk to supply into the future.

As with any network there are two defining aspects of supply: the base load, the average of the day, and the peak ‘dynamic’ load. As more people live longer and in small families or stay single, given the predicted rise in population to over 70 million in the next decade or so, you can understand how increased dynamic loads will be the key limiting factor.

For the UK to make the grade and stay at the forefront of international trade and affairs, we need to focus our energy efficiency strategy on reducing dynamic energy loads, and reducing waste energy which will effectively increase the number of supported families on the gas network.

Help expand the energy supplier market to create new energy business models

Affordability of gas is a growing problem and there are now over 5 million households in England alone in fuel poverty, a figure that is not just restricted to the elderly but includes young families who are working hard to make ends meet.

The future affordability of energy for heating and hot water needs to be tied into a cohesive policy of ‘heat and eat’ where the giant businesses such as retailers, mobile phone operators and the like can do much to help by encouraging the take-up of new methods of energy supply, leveraging off their other footfall businesses to help lower the cost of heating for their customers. Despite the efforts of some, there’s still a long way to go before the business model of ‘energy affordability’ is generally available.

At present, we have a two tier fuel bill, where the majority of the heating and hot water bill of an elderly person living alone will be made up of tier one pricing with little benefit from the reduced tier two rate. Larger home owners gain more from using more energy as tier two pricing is a bigger proportion of their energy bill.

Fuel poverty can only truly be addressed by switching this conflicting energy supply model so that homeowners can pay a lower price per kWh for using less, not more energy. This is possibly the most attractive way for the Government to incentivise homeowners to invest in energy efficiency measures that offer financially attractive reductions in energy consumption.

Yes, Mr Yeo, we do need energy security, and adopting energy efficiency measures such as these will help us to achieve this goal. So if you’re interested in your families’ future security, then write to Tim Yeo and tell him how innovations in energy efficiency lead us away from danger.

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