By Anders Lorenzen
During the recent cold snap in the UK, the country was at serious risk of running out of gas.
Is this really a surprise?
One of the reasons is that a major gas storage facility was closed last year. And therefore storage capacity is less than it used to be. Another reason is that due to the extreme weather, our imports from Norway, which is the UK’s biggest gas importer, was impacted. And of course, as it got colder, the demand for natural gas for heating increased to the highest it had been since 2006.
The inefficient UK housing stock
Added to this, the UK’s inefficient housing stock only exacerbates the problem. The UK is believed to have some of the most inefficient housing stock in Europe, and not many new builds are being built to high energy efficiency standards, and often come with old infrastructure.
As a result, the temperature only needs to reach around 0 degrees C before pipes start to freeze and gas flows are impacted. And these pipes are, as ridiculous as it sounds, often placed on the outside walls of buildings. The householders whose boilers have not yet broken down and who manage to get gas flowing through the pipes, then crank up the heating.
But as quickly as the heat spreads in the house, it escapes through single glazed windows and the walls, lofts and floors, which are likely to be insulated very poorly. So even though you could maybe afford to turn up the heating you will never really be comfortable. And the temperature changes from room to room, and the chances of you picking up illnesses increases. But for the old and vulnerable it is even worse, as very often they can’t afford to have the heating on for very long.
Energy efficiency schemes axed
What is needed is a major investment in well-insulated homes and buildings. A well insulated building would retain heat and would require very little extra heating, or in some cases, nothing at all, thereby greatly reducing the need for gas or other fuels. As a rule of thumb is that it is three times cheaper to save a kw than to create a kwh. However, such energy efficiency schemes, as well as the zero carbon homes scheme having been axed by the government in recent years.
Reducing gas dependency
I have many times argued that the UK has done very little to reduce gas dependency, and to move from gas to electrification. A prime example is cooking stoves and ovens, where many still run on gas. In addition, manufacturers are still producing them which is utter madness.
As a whole, the UK government is completely unprepared for this type of crisis and is not facing up to the core of the problem. And, ironically, due to global climate change, we are likely to see many more of these events unfold. As the UK froze, the Arctic was in sweat with extreme warm temperature spikes, and the UK freeze was in fact caused by this Arctic heatwave.
Again, ironically when these extreme events happen and let’s be clear they happen with more and more frequency, we never talk about the root causes. Yes, short-term, it is about ensuring the safety of people. But at the same time, we must address the long-term issues. We must reduce emissions, prioritise energy efficiency through zero-carbon homes, reduce our reliance on gas and make a radical move towards electrification. For while we have made huge steps in greening our electricity grid, we have hardly made a dent in greening heat.
There are solutions. We could, for example, invest in hydrogen fuel cells, district heating, heat pumps, waste-to-heat exchange to mention just a few. And we also need to change how gas is priced (but this is a whole different argument).
But meanwhile, we are creating more problems than we solve by axing schemes which are meant to get us there and adopting short-term thinking for constructing homes and buildings without factoring in energy efficiency.