27 May 2024

The gas industry is going through a period of intense transformation. From accommodating increasing amounts of biofuels into the grid to understanding the role of hydrogen in future energy scenarios, stakeholders in the industry have a number of challenges to overcome to successfully decarbonise the sector.

Learning from the past

It is not the first time that the UK gas industry drastically reshapes itself to respond to new needs.

So, what can we learn from past energy transitions? And how can we apply lessons from the past to help us solve today’s challenges?


Restructuring the gas industry

In the decades between 1949 and the end of the 1980s, the UK gas system was going through an equally challenging transformation. In 1949, the industry had been nationalised, grouping over 1,000 different private and municipal gas undertakings into 12 independent regional gas boards, coordinated by the Gas Council.

Restructuring the sector was meant to create a much more cost-efficient gas distribution system, but it didn’t come without challenges. For example, there was a need to train and upskill staff coming from a variety of sectors, who might have an engineering background but no direct experience of working with gas. This led to the establishment of 13 regional schools, offering both initial training and training to allow staff to progress in their career.

Lessons learned

It is possible – and can be cost effective – to completely reshape the gas sector when new needs arise. During the process, particular attention must be paid to filling any skills gaps and retraining existing staff, or staff from different sectors. New paths to career progression must be considered, too.

Reshaping the sector also implies a need for certainty, meaning that there must be confidence in the industry’s ability to follow through a complex and potentially slow transformation agenda.


Switching to new fuels

The debate around introducing new fuels to the gas grid is older than one might think. Today, the use of biofuels such as biogas and biomethane is relatively established, the blending of hydrogen at 20% has started in trial areas, and the possibility to run the grid on 100% hydrogen is being seriously considered. Many are worried about the safety implications of the switch, as well as the need to switch appliances. But it’s not the first time that the UK gas grid goes through a similar transformation.

At the beginning of the 1960s, the UK was still producing about 90% of its gas from coal. However, by the end of the decade, this decreased to 10-20% due to the emergence of “high-speed” gas from oil.

At approximately the same time, it was discovered that there was enough natural gas in the North Sea to support the transition of the gas network from coal or oil gas, to natural gas. The main benefit was that natural gas’ energy value is about twice that of coal gas, allowing the industry to instantly double the amount of energy that could be supplied.

However, switching fuel meant converting each and every appliance in the country. This was a very complex endeavour, mainly due to the high variety of gas-powered appliances people owned – including unusual and potentially unsafe devices, such as portable gas radiators and even gas radios. Another problem was that people did not appreciate the intrusion of having fitters come into their properties to check the safety and suitability of their existing appliances.

Finally, one more challenge came from an increased need for safety. Fitters visiting people’s homes realised the safety risks of appliances that had been poorly designed or fitted, raising the question of who should be responsible for the cost of replacements and repairs.

Ensuring appliances nationwide were safe and fit for purpose was a complex and labour-intensive process, but it also resulted in vastly improved safety standards for today’s households.  

Lessons learned

Switching to new fuels – and therefore new appliances – can lead to considerable benefits, but there are several things to consider. The first is the need for consumer engagement. It is essential that consumers understand the reasons behind the switch, and that they are provided with reliable and unbiased information through a transparent communication programme.

The second is that, despite the complexities, industry transformation can lead to increased safety standards due to the need to establish the safety and suitability of existing connections.


In the end, the main lesson we can learn from past energy transitions is that the gas industry is innovative and resilient, and has successfully overcome the complexities of previous system transformations – even without the sophisticated technologies and communication tools we now have. Transitioning to a low-carbon gas distribution system will be complex, but with a solid plan, the right skills in place, and a communication and outreach programme based on transparency, the gas sector is bound to succeed.

You can read a summary of Professor Thomas' original publication on the Wales & West Utilities website.


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