When the use of domestic gas first became widespread in Britain there was no possibility, as there is now, of choosing the cheapest supplier because there was only one, and rather than the gas coming through a pipeline from the North Sea it came from a gas works which was never very far away!
Coal was big business in those days, it created most of the power that kept our factories working and fuelled our ships and railway engines. A big drawback with much of the coal that was dug up was that when it burned it created a lot of smoke and soot, but one way of getting around this was to use coke, which was manufactured by heating coal in a closed vessel. The coal gave off tar and ammonia, which were both vital product for the chemical industry, as well as coal gas which was a mixture of hydrogen, methane and a little ethylene, all of which were highly inflammable, but unfortunately it also contained around 10% carbon monoxide which is a highly poisonous gas and it was responsible for many accidental deaths and suicides.
In the 1950s huge deposits of natural gas were discovered in the North Sea and these have the great advantage of containing no carbon monoxide. There was also, at the time, a lot of conflict between the government of the day and miners, and since no coal was necessary for the production of natural gas it seemed a win win situation to switch the nation over to this new product and since it required a different set of burners to the old town gas there was a massive conversion programme throughout the country in the 1960s, during which millions of gas fires and cookers had to be modernised or replaced.
Up until 1986 the supply and sale of gas was a state monopoly and so prices were fixed; but then privatisation came along which, it was hoped, would lead to greater efficiency and more investment in the industry. In the meanwhile gas was becoming an international commodity, which could be liquefied stored and transported over large distances.
The ease of using gas and the fact that it was now no longer toxic led to increased use of it in the home and the widespread adoption of central heating, and many coal-fired power stations were turned over to burning gas instead. Unfortunately this led to a rapid exhaustion of the existing gas fields and although more were found they were in deeper water or otherwise more difficult to access and the dream of constant, cheap gas for everyone finally died in the cold light of reality!
The fact is that North Sea gas is running out, and it is necessary for us now to be looking for new sources. One of the most popular options has been to buy the gas from abroad and either have it pumped over through pipelines or liquefied and transported by sea but the massive drawback to this scheme is that political stability elsewhere in the world could cause our gas to be cut off, with incalculable consequences. In the meanwhile, most of our deep coal mines have been closed and not only have the mines and plant gone but also the skills of the workers who would be necessary if the mines had to be reopened. There is still a debate about whether or not coal could be a fuel of the future but the obsession with global warming (still an unproven theory!) makes this unlikely in the near future unless technological advances can be made to remove carbon dioxide from coal's combustion products. This is a decision that has to be made, and made very soon; our country's power supplies will have to be guaranteed if we are to remain a major, wealthy nation.
On a lighter note, rather than have to buy gas from just one, government owned supplier we are now free to source supplies from which ever provider we wish! Their prices and terms of service are all different and so a careful assessment of each offer is essential if you wish to save money by switching suppliers.