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What's DECC's plan on gas?

  • 26 Jul 2012, 15:00
  • Robin Webster

Amidst the reaction to the government's announcement of renewables subsidies yesterday, there was some confusion about the accompanying statement of support for gas power - both over what DECC is proposing, and what it means for greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy secretary Ed Davey argued modelling from the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) shows we can burn significant amounts of gas and still hit our climate targets. But when we asked, it emerged that DECC has not published the relevant scenarios, and isn't going to.

DECC's press release, in which it announced new levels of renewable subsidy and made a statement of support for gas power, said:

"The Government … is today confirming that it sees gas continuing to play an important part in the energy mix well into and beyond 2030, while meeting our carbon budgets."

The phrase "well into and beyond 2030" is vague, but suggests to us that DECC believes gas can have a significant role well into the 2030s without exceeding the UK's carbon budgets.

Is that right?

2050 targets, 2030 targets

Carbon budgets are ultimately derived from the Climate Change Act, which commits the UK to cutting carbon emissions 80% by 2050. In order to achieve this, government advisors the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) say the way we produce power will have to be "virtually decarbonised" by 2030.

This assessment has never been endorsed by government in the form of a firm target, although the Energy and Climate Change (ECC) Committee supports the idea and Ed Davey says that it is still up for discussion.

2030 decarbonisation would require the carbon-intensity of the electricity we use to fall over the next 18 years from where it is today - with about 500 g of carbon dioxide produced per kilowatt-hour of electricity - to just a tenth of that, or 50 g per kilowatt-hour.

The average carbon intensity of gas is about 405g/Kwh - indicating that there is a limited space for the use of gas power in 2030. But there are ways of using gas as a power source that results in lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Gas could be used just as a backup renewables, so the power plant are not needed all of the time. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could also be fitted to gas power plant to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Are either of these options underpinning DECC's analysis? The press release says

"We do not expect the role of gas to be restricted to providing back up to renewables"

So we are talking about a more substantive use of gas power.

DECC adds:

"...in the longer term we see an important role for gas with CCS."

So is this predicated on CCS saving the day?

Doing our homework

We suggested to the Energy Secretary yesterday that in the light of the CCC's detailed work on energy scenarios, the government's announcement on gas and its support for climate change targets might be somewhat contradictory.

In response, Davey argued that modelling in DECC's Carbon Plan shows significant amounts of gas can be burnt without busting our carbon budgets, and a DECC official added that

"Between 10 and 20 GW of unabated gas is consistent with substantial decarbonisation of the power sector by 2030 and there are a number of scenarios you could work around that".

Davey also told us:

"If you've not looked at our Carbon Plan, you haven't done your homework!"

We dutifully turned to DECC's Carbon Plan, released last December. But it doesn't appear to contain any detailed modelling. We followed up with DECC, which responded:

"The scenarios that you mentioned have never actually been published, and we don't plan to now."

Instead, we were directed to page 82 of the plan, which states that

"Government modelling suggests that unabated gas could retain a significant role in electricity generation through the 2020s, potentially still producing up to two thirds of today's generation levels in 2030"

So if you were hoping for a reassuring answer on how unabated gas can play an 'important' role in a decarbonised power sector, there isn't one here. Indeed, DECC itself - in the same report - states:

"From 2030 onwards, a major role for gas as a baseload source of electricity is only realistic with large numbers of gas CCS plants."

...which appears to be at odds with yesterday's announcement that the government "does not expect the role of gas to be restricted to providing back up to renewables" - although admittedly that statement doesn't give us any idea of timeline. It would also seem to require a much stronger commitment to CCS technology than the vague statement that the government sees a role for CCS "in the longer term".

It's worth noting here that the difficulty is the vagueness of the terms being used: gas will play an "important part in the energy mix", or a "significant role", or comparing "by 2030" with "well into and beyond 2030", or pondering the meaning of "an important role for … CCS". There just isn't enough detail to be convinced that government has a plan.

Where next for gas policy?

MPs are due to debate the Energy Bill - which does not have a 2030 target in it, but may have one inserted - later this year. The government is also due to produce a Gas Generation Strategy in the Autumn. Perhaps by then more detail will be available about what the future for gas actually is.

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