Leading academics have for the first time, measured Great Britain’s hourly local demand for natural gas, providing insights into the gas consumption that helps keep the country warm1.

Research published today by the UK Energy Research Centre2 sheds new light on the scale and variability of local gas demand, highlighting the particular challenge of providing energy for heating and hot water throughout the winter.

Switching from fossil gas heating to low-carbon alternatives is necessary to meet the UK’s climate change targets, a point made by the Committee on Climate Change in their latest report to parliament3. The decarbonisation of heat is regarded as one of the toughest challenges the country faces in its low-carbon transition, not least because of the ubiquity and ease of use of existing natural gas heating systems.

By consolidating gas demand data from Great Britain’s local gas networks over a period of 11 months4, this research highlights the hourly variation in local gas consumption, revealing immense swings in demand throughout the day. The data covers the cold weather event popularly termed the ‘Beast from the East’5, providing further insights into demand at times of energy system stress.

The Beast from the East led to the highest gas consumption of the 2017/2018 heating season, with 214 GW of local gas demand measured at 6pm on the 1st of March. Earlier in the day, National Grid issued a gas deficit warning, calling for additional gas to be made available to ensure sufficient supply during this day of peak demand. A forecast drop in gas pressure was averted as market players brought more gas onto the system and withdrew less gas from the system than was originally forecast. The data published today reveals that this peak demand was only marginally higher than that of the previous day (+4 GW higher), but there was significantly increased demand between the hours of 10am and 3pm. With many schools and businesses closed, homes were occupied throughout the day leading to a greater demand for heating, increasing the load on the system considerably - one of the contributing factors to the issue of the gas deficit warning.

The data also highlights the formidable challenge of delivering the necessary amount of gas to get Britain up and running on winter mornings. Between the hours of 5am and 8am there is an immense increase in gas consumption – the steepest rise was recorded on Wednesday the 28th February with an increase of +116 GW. This is by no means atypical; a quarter of all days during the 2017/18, heating season measured an increase in demand of +100GW between 5am and 8am. For comparison, the peak supply of the entire electrical system over 2017/2018 heating season was 53GW, and the highest 5am to 8am increase was +16GW.

Whereas previous data evidenced seasonality and week-to-week variation, this data for the first time shows how local gas demand changes throughout the day, putting values to the known peaks in the morning and evening. This research adds new evidence to the debate surrounding the decarbonisation of heat, highlighting an additional challenge to take into consideration when planning future low-carbon heat strategies.

Decarbonising heat is key to the UK meeting its carbon commitments. This paper highlights the need for an increased focus on measures that target and reduce heat demand between 5am-8am, particularly during the winter months.

Dr Grant Wilson, UKERC researcher, University of Birmingham, and report author says: 'This research provides additional evidence to take into consideration when modelling and planning low-carbon heat strategies. The sheer scale of the variability in demand was particularly surprising. It highlights another important challenge for the decarbonisation of heat and provides even more evidence of the wider system benefits of improving the energy efficiency of homes throughout Britain.'

Prof. Jim Watson UKERC Director says: 'This new analysis reinforces the importance of further action to improve energy efficiency in our homes. This will not only reduce energy bills in the short term; it will also reduce winter demand peaks, and make it easier and cheaper to shift to low carbon sources in future.'

Graph showing Britain's local gas demand and electrical system supply
  1. “Challenges for the decarbonisation of heat: the scale of local gas demand vs electricity supply in Winter 2017/2018 ” was authored by: Dr Grant Wilson, UKERC Researcher & Lecturer in the School of Chemical Engineering, University of Birmingham; Dr Ramsay Taylor, UKERC Researcher & University Teacher, The University of Sheffield; and Dr Paul Rowley, UKERC Researcher & Senior Lecturer and Group Leader at CREST, Loughborough University.
  2. The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) carries out world-class, interdisciplinary research into sustainable future energy systems. Our whole systems research informs UK policy development and research strategy. 
  3.  Committee on Climate Change. (2018) Reducing UK emissions 2018 Progress Report to Parliament. 
  4. This briefing note summarises Great Britain’s local gas demand from the 2nd of April 2017 to the 6th of March 2018 and compares this to electrical supply over the same period. Hourly local distribution zone gas data was made available for analysis by the four gas network companies: Cadent, Northern Gas Networks, SGN, and Wales and West Utilities. This proprietary data was combined to make an hourly aggregated data set for Britain. Alongside domestic heating and hot water, the data includes small industry, the commercial and service sector, and embedded combined heat and power plants.
  5. Beast from the East 2018 was a period of prolonged cold weather over Great Britain and Ireland lasting from Saturday 24th February to Sunday 4th March.

Kate Chapple, Press Office, University of Birmingham, tel + 44 (0)121 414 2772 or + 44 (0) 7789 921164.