Are the UK’s gas networks ready to deliver a sustainable future?

4 min read

With ambitious plans at play to decarbonise the UK’s gas network, and with a range of ground-breaking innovations emerging, now is the time to consider how to address the sector’s biggest challenge, which is: how do we deliver a secure, sustainable and affordable net zero energy supply?

Here, Mace’s Director for Energy and Utilities, Javid Khaliq, considers how we can support the wholesale transition of our gas network to greener solutions by 2050 by frontloading the project lifecycle of future energy solutions.

Encouragingly, as of recent years, the energy sector has made phenomenal strides towards finding a solution to how gas, which heats 85% of UK households and causes around a third of all emissions, finds a place in the future energy mix.

To give some scale to the progress of greener natural gas alternatives, there are now over 200 large-scale hydrogen projects in the pipeline worldwide and more than 670 biomethane plants in operation in the UK. With studies being undertaken to understand how our home heating can be electrified using heat pumps, there are some serious sustainable solutions in the running. 

Although, that’s just it - much of this ground-breaking work is in the early stages of development, with years of research, testing and legislative change still required, with key decisions yet to be made around how the changeover will be funded… and by who.  

However, this does not mean that those of us operating within the industry must sit on our hands and wait. Instead, we must consider how we can support our gas networks in becoming part of the solution, not losing out against progress made by other energy providers. 

Bolster the early stages of the transition process   

UK gas companies are readily rising to meet the energy challenge, building on a longstanding history of collaboration, while pulling upon wider, cross-sector expertise to find a whole system solution.

One area of focus is around the production of hydrogen, with much work being done and investment made to prove that this gas and energy carrier is safe and viable for decarbonising home heating, transport and heavy industry.

Already we are beginning to see movements towards regulatory change, with the UK Health & Safety Executive undertaking work to understand the best ways to safely store and transport hydrogen to develop the guidance needed for its widescale application.

Despite this industry traction, much more needs to be done so that the gas sector is readied for delivery, sooner rather than later, as due to the unprecedented size and complexity of the gas transition, there are many threads which need holding together.

Therefore, a longer-term delivery view needs embedding now.

One way to achieve this is by prioritising programme delivery and project integration from the outset. This way issues can be mitigated early on, ensuring greater efficiencies by bringing together under one roof the management of the various parts of the delivery process. This will instil a sense of collective accountability and drive, reinforced through clear governance and commercial arrangements.

To support a consistent approach to programme delivery, a successful Project Management Office (PMO) will provide the sector with much needed clarity around risks and issues. This function will give gas networks a baseline for informed decision making and the tools needed for collaboration, holding projects to budget, schedule and at an acceptable level of risk – key components to operational efficiency.

Readying the sector for delivery

Research and work undertaken to date has already shown that much of the existing gas network can be repurposed for sustainable gas solutions, as demonstrated by the HyDeploy project, which saw a 20% hydrogen blend safely injected into a closed gas network at Keele University.

Despite these proven network efficiencies, there is still the requirement for large pieces of infrastructure to be developed in the name of net zero, including carbon capture and storage facilities and new pipelines, with a significant amount of the existing network contributing to emissions through leakage.

Therefore, with major projects set to come through the planning process, there is a requirement for a ‘one team approach’ to pre-emptively address project delivery matters, some of which are yet to be understood.

This team uniformity will provide clarity around outcomes, whilst creating a framework to consistently communicate the realities of sustainable solutions to the population at large, as well as to impacted local communities.

By cohesively articulating the benefits associated with sustainable supply change, including on the thousands of new jobs, upgraded network infrastructure, environmental improvements and the wider socioeconomic gains, truly integrated teams will be able to draw upon their expertise to mitigate concerns through early engagement. This will lead to insights which can sharpen programmes, shape project outcomes and strengthen trust. 

Without question, a more timely and sustainable future for our gas network can be driven through programme planning and project integration, PMO and establishing a ‘one team’ approach. These actions will set today’s ground-breaking net zero innovations up for future success, allowing for a more favourable political environment for key decisions to be made and in turn, for funding to be secured to implement this much needed transition, delivering results in the not-too-distant future.