In 2019 the UK’s official advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), warned that the nation’s homes were ‘unfit for the challenges of climate change’. Even after the government set new standards to improve matters, the CCC wrote an unusually stern rebuke saying why this failed to make homes safe from the impacts of climate breakdown, or to meet carbon reduction targets, and that doing so was a matter of urgent concern. Few today remember a rapid energy transition that happened half a century earlier. What lessons might there be from the UK’s rapid household transition from so-called ‘town gas’ to the relatively cleaner ‘natural gas’? Most of the homes standing today will still be here in 2050, and as many countries look to retrofit them to go zero carbon and be energy efficient, what can be learned from when 14 million customers switched their fuel supply in around just eight years?
There is pressure on governments to move away from fossil fuels, both as a place of investment and as the primary energy sources of our economies. Solar, wind and other renewables have increased their share of the market enormously, but still constitute only a minority share of global energy use. Just 15% of energy consumption was met by renewables in 2018. That is changing quickly, but estimates of the speed of transition vary considerably and are being constantly revised as renewable energy technologies beat expectations. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that by 2050 renewables will still only account for 28% of total energy use – which would be in contradiction of global climate targets – but researchers at Stanford University in the US believe a target of 100% renewable energy is possible by 2050 for 139 countries they assessed. Renewables accounted for 26% of just electricity generation in 2018, and is expected by the International Energy Agency to rise to 30% in 2024.
When forecasts of change are made, they are hugely sensitive to assumptions. Official government predictions and those from representative international organisations tend not to allow for the possibility of radical system change and hence can underestimate the potential for rapid transition. For market systems which defer, at least in theory, to consumer choice, this can be an obstacle. Because, infrastructure at the consumer end often seems hard to change.
For example, there are still insufficient recharging points in most countries to make electric vehicles the norm, housing design remains inefficient and public transport is woefully lacking in many places. For that reason, cases when systems have been changed in the past – quickly and completely, and even at the individual household level – are illuminating. One such example is the United Kingdom’s conversion from ‘town gas’, which was made by distilling coal and later oil, to ‘natural gas’ (mainly methane), after large reserves of gas were discovered in the North Sea in the mid 1960s.
Subsequently, a government-directed nationwide campaign saw the conversion of millions of household gas supplies start in 1968 and finish in 1976 – just 8 years to change a whole system from one fuel to another. This involved converting around 40 million appliances for 14 million customers, mostly households, reaching a peak of 2.3 million a year in the 1970s and, in spite of it being still a fossil fuel, causing a huge reduction in carbon emissions, due to the extreme carbon inefficiency of former fuels relied on.
Between 1970 and 2018, the UK population rose from 56m to 66m, but both total energy use and carbon emissions fell in this same period. This was because coal – the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels – was nearly eliminated, cleaner natural gas consumption rose slightly and then fell, and oil consumption stayed the same, as the growing area of transport remained oil-dependent. For each unit of energy they yield, coal releases about 100 units of carbon dioxide, petrol or diesel release about 70 units and natural gas releases about 50.
The conversion exercise was, in the words of Sir Denis Rooke, chairman of British Gas from 1976 until 1989, “perhaps the greatest peacetime operation in the nation’s history.” Rooke, who had been a member of the team working on the import of liquified natural gas (LNG) from its inception in 1957, became development engineer, responsible for new production processes and planning an integrated supply system. The conversion was also good for the industry; between 1949 and the end of the conversion program in 1977, sales increased sixfold.
It is likely that the UK will need to embark on a similar if not even more ambitious programme if it is to reach its target of net zero emissions by 2050. The official UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC UK) details the emission reduction challenge in its report, “Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming”, in which it lists the main sectors where the UK needs to rapidly reduce emissions as transport and domestic heating. Electrification from renewables, phasing out fossil fuels, and the development of a hydrogen industry are seen as key. By 2050, the report says, UK hydrogen production capacity should be of comparable size to the UK’s current fleet of gas-fired power stations. Several consider even the scale of action called for by the CCC UK to be too conservative, and there has been a suggestion by advocates of a Green New Deal that all the UK’s estimated 30 million residential and commercial properties should undertake an energy retrofit by 2030.
This example of rapid transition, the switch to natural gas, shows that structural change that affects huge numbers of individuals at the domestic level can work. Fuels can be changed and people can adapt quickly if the need is explained and the benefits well illustrated. Governments also have the power to legislate quickly and explain later, as in the case of the surprise statement in spring 2019 that gas boilers would be banned in new homes from 2025 in a bid to tackle emissions. The then chancellor, Philip Hammond, said that these new standards mandating the end of fossil fuel heating systems in new homes from 2025 would deliver lower carbon and lower fuel bills too. However, there is no immediate replacement being offered for free and heating with electricity is currently several times more costly. Schemes exist to incentivise people to invest in lower carbon technologies, but these require major capital outlay that many people just cannot afford.
Knowing that we have successfully changed fuel systems before makes current research projects in replacement fuels seem less outlandish. For example, a project in Leeds is working to decarbonise gas by replacing methane heavy natural gas with hydrogen. This would still produce around 50 gm/kwh CO2 equivalent including indirect emissions, but this is much less than the 180 gm/Kwh CO2 produced by natural gas. The H21 Leeds City gate partnership aims to achieve gas decarbonisation by 2030, leaving the city free to concentrate on the rest of its energy infrastructure and potentially be a clean energy city before 2050.
A similar programme carried out at the city level was the Kirklees Warm Zone initiative, which offered free cavity wall and loft insulation (along with safety checks and other benefits) to all 176,000 households in the city under a 3-year programme with £21m investment. It resulted in 51,000 homes being insulated, the creation of 126 jobs and 25,000 tonnes carbon savings/year. Going into people’s homes also had other social impacts: there were 45,000 household referrals for benefits, fire safety measures, water conservation, carers support and housing loans. To date, the average Kirklees household on the scheme saved £200 per year on their fuel bills. The initiative also highlighted a range of practical problems with how to engage people: 23,000 gave no response or no one was ever found at home; 8,900 were not interested; 29,000 already had insulation; 15,000 could not be helped for technical reasons; and 14,000 were cancelled by the customer, a reminder that people move, change their minds, and have other reasons not to engage.
Mining companies were the first to discover that gas could be used for light and heat. In 1727 Carlisle Spedding lit his office at Whitehaven colliery in the UK with methane from his coal mine and by 1792 William Murdoch was lighting his house at Redruth, Cornwall by gas produced in an iron retort. In 1801 Philippe Lebon demonstrated gas lighting publicly in Paris and in 1817 Samuel Clegg developed the first gas meter. By 1826 James Sharp had installed an experimental gas cooker at his house in Northampton, England and by the early 1900s gas use was widespread. In 1949 the British gas industry was nationalised as part of a post-war programme of bringing infrastructure into public ownership. 1,037 separate undertakings, previously under private or municipal ownership, were amalgamated into 12 area gas boards and today it remains the largest single supply network in the world. All this gas was produced from coal or oil and when burnt it gave off mostly hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
The Chinese are believed to have used natural gas as early as the 3rd century AD and its use was certainly common in the USA from the second half of the 19th century. Natural gas was initially imported to Britain in liquid form from 1959 for use in new plants, but after large quantities of natural gas were discovered off the coast of Yorkshire in 1965, the industry decided to supply this gas direct to consumers. Natural gas, which is predominantly methane, has very different burning properties from “manufactured gas”, which is why equipment needed to be converted. The conversion from coal-manufactured gas to “natural gas” was not done to reduce carbon emissions, but it can now be used to illustrate how it is possible to make the future changes we need in order to de-carbonise our domestic energy systems.
In a historical period and place where government intervention in the market, even though frequently necessary to prevent failure, has, for decades, been ideologically out of favour, the rapid transition to natural gas was, unambiguously, a centrally coordinated and state-led operation. All sorts of things had to be aligned including the manufacture of appliances, the fuel itself and its dependent infrastructure, a skilled workforce, consumers and homes. Without this rapid uptake would have been impossible. ‘The massive organisation responsible for conversion can itself be visualised as a parallel actor-network, in which gas board staff, contractors, appliance manufacturers and gas consumers are linked together by information campaigns, gas pipelines, contractual arrangements, industrial relations agreements and millions of conversion kits,’ write Clare Hanmer and Simone Abram. The opportunities for business, they note, were also ample, ‘one appliance manufacturer, the Radiation Group of companies, provided conversion sets for over three million cookers, two million water heaters, 1.7 million fires and 52,000 central heating units.’
Despite the cost and potential problems, the advantages of complete conversion were overwhelming. There were enormous advantages of distributing methane without dilution; processing costs would be minimal, and the capacity of gas mains would be effectively doubled. Against this had to be set the cost of converting every appliance so that it could burn methane instead of coal gas. The company carried out a survey of several thousand customers close to one of their terminals in 1966 and this revealed that a huge variety of equipment would need to be converted – three or four appliances per home on average. A large proportion were also 15 years old or more, which meant that ways had to be found to convert all these old appliances or to persuade customers to buy new ones by offering generous terms.
The industry was one nationalised company rather than the mosaic of individual providers that exist in today’s market. This made it easier for them to dictate terms and invest in conversion without having to worry about what their competitors were doing. The conversion process constituted an enormous technical, marketing, and public relations exercise. There was undoubted inconvenience, but considering the opportunities for error and complaint, most customers accepted the conversion with good will; it gave them a direct and personal opportunity to share in the excitement of the North Sea discoveries, which were lauded at the time as offering better fuel security for the UK. Conversion was free and, for many, it gave an opportunity for old appliances to be brought up to scratch or replaced cheaply. Another advantage then was that North Sea gas was cheaper, just as now renewables such as onshore wind and solar power are the cheapest sources of electricity generation.
The company, British Gas, in the 1960s and 1970s was also a major appliance retailer. They ran showrooms in every town and city, which deal with accounts and service queries as well as selling cookers, heaters and smaller appliances. They offered rental and HP terms to those who could not buy outright, making new equipment available to a wide range of householders for the first time. Today, sales are made across a huge range of independent retailers and often online, without assistance from a knowledgeable salesperson. These firms mostly have nothing to do with energy supply and so offering cheap conversion will be much more difficult.