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Is natural gas a transition fuel?

Posted by Brychan Williams on 13 August 2019 at 10:24 am

Opinion Piece, Part One

Natural Gas is often branded as a necessary transition fuel; a cleaner alternative to coal and oil. It is commonly asserted that natural gas is needed to plug the output gap that will be left with the phasing out of other fossil fuels.

The argument is that we aren’t ready for the full transition to renewables yet and that we need to wait for the technology to improve further and for advancements in battery storage and carbon capture, so we need natural gas while we wait. But is this really the case?

10 years ago I would have been tempted to say yes, but renewable energy technologies have advanced a lot since then and have become increasingly cheaper and more reliable.

Natural gas should no longer be branded as a transitionary fuel especially within the UK.

It is not clean, its production still contributes significantly towards climate change and from a personal viewpoint it seems that branding it as a ‘transition fuel’ allows large oil and gas corporations to maximise profits for as long as they can. Any new investment in fracking should be discouraged and instead we should be looking at the renewable energy technologies already on offer.

Let’s start by looking at the emissions produced by natural gas. The combustion of natural gas in a new power plant produces 50-60% less carbon dioxide than from a typical coal plant. This is certainly a positive.

However gas production is increasing across the world. Natural gas isn’t simply replacing coal and oil, rather production is being scaled up and over current levels, instead of simply replacing it. Yes demand for energy is increasing, but I think this can be met by other means, especially within the UK.

Another concern with natural gas is the fact that drilling and extraction of natural gas from wells and its transportation across pipelines results in the leakage of methane. The release of methane has more than 80 times the climate warming impact than CO2 over the first 20 years after it is released. This is certainly concerning considering we are at tipping point when it comes to climate change.

Depending on how much methane is leaked into the atmosphere globally, it could mean that the production of natural gas is actually accelerating global warming at a greater pace than many think. If the UK government is serious about declaring a Climate Emergency then it really should be looking to move away from natural gas rather than relaxing fracking laws.

Yes the production of a natural gas plant results in roughly 50-60% less carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in comparison to coal plants, but if we factor this in with the amount of methane that is being released, then how much better is natural gas for the environment? This is of course difficult to quantify but what is clear is that we cannot go on with the burning of fossil fuels the way we currently are. By arguing that natural gas is better than the other alternatives, people are missing the point.

The UN only this year stated that we have 11 years to prevent irreversible damage from climate change. The UK should take the lead in this fight; we have a different choice and that choice is to put full backing behind renewables.

In Part 2 of this blog series I will outline how the UK could potentially move to 100% renewable energy sources and how we could achieve this without compromising energy security.



If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.

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1 comments - read them below or add one

Bean Beanland

Bean BeanlandComment left on: 31 August 2019 at 1:28 pm

Interesting piece. In addition, continuing to use natural gas to heat new homes merely embeds fossil fuels, potentially for the lifetime of the building (way beyond 2050 and the net zero target), unless it is future-proofed at build for an alternative. If that is the case, then why not deploy the alternative at the outset? The current best option for decarbonised heat and domestic hot water (and cooling) is a heat pump of some sort. Most homes can be fitted with a heat pump without the drastic upheaval that nay-sayers like to quote. The key is in quality design and specification. I accept that the installation of heat pumps is currently costly, but if we stop subsidising fossil fuels, heat pumps themselves would be operationally competitive. Those who think that hydrogen might be the answer should look at when this might become a commercial reality (some years away) and at the likely cost. The hydrogen industry itself suggests a domestic retail price of at least 8p/kWh, nearly twice the price of natural gas. That is a price shock waiting to happen for 26 million households.

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