Debunking the “bridge:” Can gas really act as a bridging fuel to a low-carbon UK energy?

A recent report from the UK Energy Research Centre analyses the future role of natural gas in the UK. It shows that the substitution of coal by gas in the country’s energy system has started at least in the 1970s. From 1990-2000, there was the so-called dash for gas when gas gradually reduced coal use in power generation. By 2014 the use of gas in UK primary energy consumption had increased from 5% in 1970 to 47% and the use of coal had fallen from 40% to 16%.

Given UK’s statutory greenhouse gas emission reduction targets (80% reduction by 2050 from the level in 1990) and the decision to cancel its £1 billion carbon capture and storage demonstration programme, the question arises whether developing shale gas in the UK is the most cost-effective solution to meet the UK’s energy needs while reducing its emissions. The report concludes that “gas is unlikely to act as a cost-effective ‘bridge’ to a decarbonised UK energy system.” And further: it could only act as a bridge from 2015-2020. In fact, without carbon capture and storage technology, gas must be steadily phased out and almost entirely removed by 2050. The report states that “the scope for UK gas use in 2050 is little more than 10% of its 2010 level.” All in all, building new gas-fired power stations may reduce emissions in the short term but it would not be the most cost-effective solution and may seriously compromise the UK’s decarbonisation targets by diverting investment from low- or zero-carbon power generation.   

McGlade, C., Pye, S., Watson, J., Bradshaw, M., & Ekins, P. (2016). The future role of natural gas in the UK. UK Energy Research Centre.