Natural gas has been a source of energy in the UK for more than 200 years. The fuel provides one-third of all energy consumed for heat, and it accounts for four-fifths of total peak energy demand. National Grid UK—a government-regulated energy monopoly—is responsible for meeting nearly half of that demand, serving approximately 25 million gas customers annually. The company’s innovation team, led by Director of Network Strategy David Parkin, SF ’12, plays a key role in helping the country meet its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s true that regulators help shape our business model,” notes Parkin. “But the government’s mandate also explicitly funds our research and development. It’s an environment that inspires a bit of envy among our colleagues in National Grid’s U.S. offices.” Even as they work to decarbonize the existing network, Parkin and his team are developing innovative forms of natural gas that can be injected into National Grid’s existing 284,000 km of pipes—a length that could circle the Earth six times.
Inventing fuels for 2050
“Our financial incentives enable us to invest now in the natural gas network of 2050,” says Parkin. In collaboration with other networks, contractors, SMEs, and global corporations outside the energy sector, National Grid is creating sustainable, environmentally friendly fuel sources that have the potential to maximize use of existing networks while drastically decarbonizing heat. The company currently has ten plants devoted to the production of biogas, a renewable fuel made from organic wastes and biomethane that produces a shorter carbon cycle than extracted natural gas. And biogas doesn’t compete with food production, further enhancing its sustainability.
Even more promising, in Parkin’s view, are projects devoted to biosynthetic natural gas (Bio-SYN). “We’re particularly enthusiastic about Bio-SYN,” he explains, “because we can produce it using a much broader range of household waste.” Based on the trajectory of current research and production, Parkin estimates green gas sources could satisfy nearly half of the UK’s energy demand for heat by 2050. “When we combine these new gas technologies with greater efficiency and other non-fossil fuel sources, we can set a solid course toward a carbon-neutral future.”