Gas Coalition resists Electrification of Heat

by Richard Lowes, Bridget Woodman, Jamie Speirs

A recently published paper by Richard Lowes et al. examines how the fossil fuel industry is resisting the transition to the electrification of heat.

A sentence from the abstract summarises the paper:

"Incumbents are over-selling 'green-gas' to policy makers in order to protect their interests and detract from the importance and value of electrification."

We recommend you read the full paper "Electrifying Heat in Great Britain - An incumbent discourse coalition".

For those short of time to read the whole paper the conclusions are provided below:

Conclusions and policy implications

The power of actors, and in particular incumbent actors on the dynamics of energy transitions, has featured frequently in considerations of socio-technical change. In particular, the power of actors to affect policy change has been suggested to be important. Yet specific analysis into how incumbents affect policy change is limited.

This article describes the existence and behaviour of a discourse coalition in Great Britain formed primarily of gas industry incumbents, under threat from the decarbonisation of heating. This gas coalition has presented a storyline to policy makers that an option which continues the use of the gas infrastructure and gas boilers, but replaces fossil gas with some form of low carbon gas is the strategy which should be taken. This option is suggested by the coalition to be technologically, economically and socially favourable compared to electrification.

While this analysis has shown the response of incumbents involved in gas heating to the threat of heat electrification, we note that some elements of the industry under study face an existential threat and this may in part explain the forcefulness of their low carbon gas vision promotion. Not all incumbents will face such an existential threat and adaptation may be possible in other sectors leading to more balanced responses.

Despite the promotion of the low carbon gas storyline by incumbents, our critique shows that as well as being technologically uncertain, the green gas storyline will not necessarily be cheaper or favourable. Indeed only one option for low carbon gas, hydrogen conversion, appears to be a serious contender compared to electrification and this technological approach is deeply uncertain. The green gas storyline is being oversold by incumbents. We make no prediction about optimal future energy systems in this paper but we note that electrification has be repeatedly been seen as an important low carbon heat option that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately.

A key policy issue associated with the strong promotion of hydrogen is that it could have the effect of increasing uncertainty for policy makers therefore making any decisions difficult. The natural result of this could be a delay in policy development at a time when significant policy interventions are needed to drive rapid technological change in line with targets for net zero. Policy makers should be aware that attempts to increase uncertainty may be a strategy used by incumbents to delay the introduction of required decarbonisation policies.

While it comes as no huge surprise that low carbon gas is being strongly promoted by a gas industry under threat and that this industry engages with policy makers, a key concern for the transition to low carbon heating is the capacity that incumbents have to promote their storyline. It is not apparent from wider research around the issue of incumbency in the UK heat sector that niche actors have the capacity to compete with incumbents on policy and discursive issues (Lowes et al., 2018b).

This is a key structural issue associated with incumbency and while our analysis does not allow us to make specific recommendations on this issue we support the conclusion of (Lockwood et al., 2020) that greater awareness within Government of industry lobbying would be of value and the independent expertise should be valued. We also repeat calls for greater levels of transparency in UK policy making (Lowes et al., 2019).

In light of the UK's 2050 net zero target, heat needs to be decarbonised rapidly and any delay, caused by technological uncertainty, puts the UK target for greehouse gas reduction at even further risk. While we recognise there is uncertainty, we suggest there is significantly less uncertainty over elements of electrification compared to hydrogen conversion. Low carbon heating appliances have been deployed at scale around the world and low carbon electricity is being generated. The same cannot be said for hydrogen boilers and low carbon hydrogen for heating.

To reduce uncertainty, independently verified, technical trials must rapidly attempt to reduce the uncertainties around hydrogen to see what, if any role, it can play in a sustainable heat system. Meanwhile, UK policy should focus on the deployment of known technologies which can decarbonise heating including heat networks, heat pumps and energy efficiency. Due to the uncertainties associated with hydrogen in the short term, deployment of known low carbon heating technologies should be at a rate commensurate with the 2050 net zero target with the understanding that low carbon gas, including hydrogen, may not prove viable at scale.



See Fiscal Background: UK energy prices

See also Hydrogen for heating?, a blog by Professor David Cebon