National Energy Action (NEA), the UK charity that campaigns against fuel poverty recently reported that households that are not connected to the gas grid are more vulnerable to risks of cold-related ill-health, and financial hardship. Dr Jamie-Leigh Rosenburgh, NEA Senior Research and Policy Officer said:
“Households which are off the gas grid are some of the coldest and most energy inefficient in the UK, as well as some of the most expensive to heat. Many people living in such properties struggle to meet their energy needs for comfort and warmth and are at risk from cold-related ill health. Connecting them to the gas grid could potentially bring threefold benefits relating to health, energy efficiency and fuel poverty reduction.”
NEA are therefore running research to evaluate the impact of a free connection to the gas grid to improve the health of families in hardship.
Normally, such an initiative would have the unequivocal support of the left. However, the shadow of climate change falls across all issues related to domestic heating. Gas heating is substantially cheaper than electric heating (about 4p per kWh, rather than 15p), but heating our homes is responsible for 15% of all the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.
For this reason, there is a strategic decision that we need to make over how we decarbonise domestic heating and hot water. Given the impact that this will have on household budgets, it is vital that the socialist left, and trade unions, advocate solutions that take into account the interests of households. Decarbonisation should not be paid for by huge increases in bills for working people.
For many green campaigners, the answer is to shift all heating to electricity, with most homes being switched to a “heat pump”. This seems to be the preferred route for many in the civil service and academia. Heat pumps are not new technology, but most people in the UK have limited awareness of them. They are a very efficient form of electric heat, but a report by Element Energy for the UK government concluded that even if the costs of heat pumps fell considerably their lifetime costs would always be higher for consumers than gas. There is also a question mark about the huge expansion of electricity capacity required, and whether that would be sourced from renewables.
There is a viable alternative, which is to maintain the gas grid, and its connections to 24 million homes, but to green the gas within it, perhaps to a blend of hydrogen and biomethane (this is chemically the same as the natural gas we already use, but made from renewable sources).
UK households were converted to natural gas between 1967 and 1977, but before that they used town gas, that was about 50% hydrogen, and made from coal. However, hydrogen can also be made by splitting water, using electricity, into hydrogen and water, with no carbon emissions. The first advocate of using wind power to generate hydrogen for clean fuel was the renowned British scientist, and populariser of Marxism, J.B.S Haldane back in 1925. Remarkably, Haldane predicted exactly what engineers are today proposing: Hydrogen produced by windmills from water, and the gas being stored in underground salt caverns before delivering to homes via pipelines.
There are other ways of making hydrogen industrially, either by so-called steam-reformation of natural gas, or by what is known as “gasification” from municipal waste. Both of these methods produce carbon dioxide. Although many green campaigners are sceptical about carbon capture and storage (CCS), it is possible to capture the waste CO2 and store it permanently underground. The UK government recently revealed that even at today’s levels of CO2 production, we could store 170 years’ worth of CO2 in the UK, and when combined with other measures to reduce CO2 production, we have capacity for hundreds of years.
Scepticism about CCS is misplaced. Norway has just approved a €2.1bn project to capture CO2 and store it under the North Sea, and a UK company, Equinor, has just announced the first, at scale, production facility for hydrogen with carbon capture offshore in the Humber estuary. Instead of doubting it, the left and environmental movements should be demanding more of it, especially when combined with renewable feedstocks, like biomass or municipal waste, then CCS actually reduces greenhouse gas levels.
Climate change is a massive challenge, and there will be political choices to be made about what technical measures are necessary. Deng Xiaoping once said that it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. There are some in the environmental movement who passionately advocate heat pumps and electrification of heat, even if it pushes up poverty, and who are dismissive of the green gas option. However green gas will be better for consumers, and jobs. Or as Deng might have said, it doesn’t matter what colour the cat is, as long as its green.