Gas in our lives #1: Beyond the blue flame - heating and cooking

25 February 2016

In this series, Corin Taylor from United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas takes a look at how gas is used in our everyday lives, and what the future might hold.

What's the most important use of energy in your everyday life? If we really thought about it, some of us might say charging our iPhones, driving or taking the train to work, or enjoying a well-lit home on these dark winter nights. But it's a fair bet that many of us would say that keeping warm and cooking our food was top of the list.

And that's where gas is so valuable. Eight out of 10 homes in Britain rely on natural gas to fuel the boilers that keep our rooms warm and provide our hot water. Heating and hot water account for around 80% of our home energy consumption.

And most homes also have gas cooking hobs, which in my experience – having lived in homes with both – are far better to cook on than electric hobs.

It's a major logistical exercise to ensure that enough gas gets to 23 million homes, especially on cold winter evenings when we all turn the heating on at the same time. There are more than 280,000 km of pipelines in Britain that move the gas from where it is produced to where it is needed – that's around three quarters as far as the Moon.

So gas is a vital source of energy for the country, and it also has a long history. Our streets used to be lit by gas lamps, and our parents or grandparents will remember a time when nearly every town had a gasworks, which produced "town gas" from coal. Then in the 1970s, we started to produce natural gas, which is far cleaner, from the North Sea. In that decade appliances were converted from town gas to run on natural gas, and coal fires stopped burning. It was, at the time, a clean energy revolution.

Since then, millions of homes have had central heating – fuelled by gas – installed, boilers have become more efficient, and insulation has been improved. This means that we can now heat our homes to a more comfortable temperature. In 1970, the average home was heated to 12 degrees Celsius in winter; now the average is 17.5 degrees. But the amount of energy used for heating and hot water in homes has roughly stayed the same.

So what might the future hold? The immediate imperative is to reduce energy bills. Gas is around a third the price of electricity, but bills are still too high for many people. Better insulation and more efficient boilers will help to bring down heating costs – according to the Heating and Hotwater Industry Council, there are still 9 million inefficient boilers in UK homes.

In the long run, we will need to decarbonise heating. That will be tough to achieve with current renewables, such as wind and solar, which are more effective at producing electricity – there will be no heat or hot water produced from a solar thermal installation on winter evenings, for example. But we might be able to decarbonise heat by converting natural gas to hydrogen, and using the gas pipeline network to transport it to our homes.

This idea is no pipe-dream. A detailed study is underway in Leeds, and if it can work there, it can work in other cities too. So one day, we may be using hydrogen, produced from natural gas, for our heating and because burning hydrogen emits only water vapour, we would be doing the climate a big favour.

Our experience of using energy has changed a lot. Many people used to have to carry coal into the home to stay warm. Now we just press a button on the thermostat. It's easy to overlook where that heat comes from. For most of us, it's thanks to gas that is extracted deep underground and piped to our homes. Even as we develop renewable sources of energy, we shouldn't forget that gas, in its own quiet way, makes a huge contribution to our lives.