Clueless in Whitehall

On 3rd November 2015, I had the disconcerting experience of wandering up and down Whitehall in London looking vainly for a venue : the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG) and Energy Networks Association (ENA) event entitled “Gas – Delivering for Customers and Supporting the Low Carbon Economy“.

The central street of government officialdom has become almost unrecognisable in parts, owing to a fad for boarding up offices under renovation in boxed section – London’s joinery community must be waxing rich. I wondered inconclusively if this trend was spurred by attention to security questions ahead of the round-Cenotaph open-air wreath-laying coming up on 11th November.

I very politely asked several security guards in high visibility jerkins and a policeman outside Downing Street with an outrageously full hipster beard where I could find Number 61, and nobody seemed to know where it was.

I even went into the front door of Number 74 Parliament Street to check I wasn’t looking in the wrong place. The reception guard said that I wasn’t the first person who’d come asking.

I dropped in at the Cabinet Office, and asked if perhaps the invitation meant Whitehall Place instead of Whitehall. I even phoned the mobile phone number and desk number of the event organiser – who didn’t pick up. Obviously. Because he was hard at work at the venue itself already.

Eventually, I encountered a face I recognised striding along Whitehall, or at least I thought I recognised : Nick Molho, now working with the Aldersgate Group, and I asked him if he was also going to the PRASEG/ENA meeting. He was not.

And then I found Dr Alan Whitehead MP also wandering down the street, similarly lost. He too had stopped Nick Molho to ask about Number 61. Clueless in Whitehall.

Comrades in lostness, together we walked into the scaffolded, but not boxed-in, Banqueting House, and helpfully, a woman on the welcome team knew that Number 61 was next door. Of course, Number 61 is the home of RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute. And of course, we’d both been there before. Maybe I ought to carry around a proper smartphone for situations such as these.

Once successfully in the round room with the tasteful purple velvet curtain backdrop, I found a contact from the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), who was also sporting very large amounts of sprouty chin hair. The beard’s coming on well, I commented. Yes, I grew it all myself, he answered proudly. So, I asked, could I ask you anything about the Spending Review ? Well, he said, you could ask me, but I can’t guarantee if I can answer you, and if I do answer you, I might not be able to give the full answer. OK then, I conceded, I won’t ask.

The 25th November, he said, is when the announcements will be made.

My view is though that this particular person will get to keep his job. If he were about to leave the government, he would have shaved his beard off by now. Presentableness for interviews, you see. A clean chin denotes a clean mind, or at least, a refreshed one, looking more youthful, and ready for something new. A kind of face “reset”.

There were a number of very interesting presentations at the PRASEG/ENA do, but the ones that really stood out for me were a presentation on Renewable Gas from National Grid and the one from CNG Services about compressed Natural Gas being used to fuel Heavy Goods Vehicles.

I spoke to the speaker from National Grid after their presentation. I told them I had called my book on low carbon gas system options “Renewable Gas”, as I had been impressed by the National Grid publication of the same name that I read back in 2009.

I said it was a shame that the UK Capacity Mechanism had not worked as it should have done to support new investment in high performance combined cycle gas turbine power generation plant (CCGTs), which are an ideal way of increasing flexibility in balancing the UK power supply to demand, especially as more intermittent/variable renewable power becomes available.

CCGTs have faced issues of economic viability because they are not always in use, and this would only be exacerbated by increasing levels of wind and solar power feeding the grid.

I said it seemed obvious to me that it would be more economically efficient if CCGTs were extended to become fully integrated gas production and recycling systems. I said this meant capturing carbon dioxide and re-processing it into new methane-rich gas fuel, methanating with Renewable Hydrogen produced from biomass and steam, or renewable electricity when available, and storing the methane-rich fuel for use when renewable electricity was not available.

I congratulated the speaker on having the word “Methanation” on one of their slides.

They intimated that in a very short timeframe they expected their first BioSNG (biomass-derived substitute Natural Gas) project to be announced – gasifying black bag waste in Swindon, and making methane-rich gas for grid injection.

I said I would be interested in visiting the site, and was invited to email in a request to be included on the notification list.

The presentation from CNG Services showed us the new Scania gas truck – fuelled entirely by compressed natural gas – and the location of the filling station – on the high pressure gas transmission line. What will be happening is that John Lewis – will be anaerobically digesting all their food waste, and converting the biogas to biomethane, and injecting it into the gas grid, receiving Green Gas Certificates. They will then run a fleet of Scania gas trucks, and fill up at CNG Services, and will be able to claim that their entire transport fleet will be running on Renewable Gas.

To me, it was notable that there was not much discussion of shale gas throughout much of the event, despite this being one of the key planks of the Conservative Government energy narrative of late, regardless of how vain and meaningless it is. The PRASEG/ENA event showed that they may be clueless in Whitehall, but there are some parliamentarians and their friends in the gas industry who recognise the huge opportunities for manufactured low carbon gas.

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