One village is trialling the use of hydrogen mixed into their natural gas supply, and other projects are looking at how to switch completely from gas to hydrogen. James Wilmore considers what this means for social landlords. Photography by Charlotte Graham
In a small village in Gateshead, a pilot project is due to start that some hope could be a defining moment in cutting carbon emissions in homes. A total of 670 households in Winlaton will be the guinea pigs, as a blend of 20% hydrogen and 80% natural gas is supplied to their properties.
Luckily for residents, they have not had to change any of their existing boilers or hobs, because they can handle a small proportion of hydrogen. “It’s a real win-win,” says Tim Harwood, head of programme management at Northern Gas Networks (NGN) and responsible for the project known as HyDeploy North East.
“[Residents] are decarbonising, but they won’t notice any difference. It’s zero disruption for them.”
Hydrogen is gaining momentum as an alternative to natural gas in homes as the race to net zero ramps up. But it is untested on a wide scale, until now.
The village of Winlaton was chosen because it is close to NGN’s site at Low Thornley, where various hydrogen testing projects are taking place.
The company, however, has had to convince some of those taking part.
“There were a few residents at the start who didn’t understand exactly why we were doing it,” says Mr Harwood. “But we’ve been inside every house and people have really come round.”
The 10-month trial, which also involves gas distributor Cadent, has not been without its teething problems. It was due to start last month, but at time of press had not yet started. “There was a bit of a delay getting all the final approvals from the Health and Safety Executive with it being the first trial in the UK,” says Mr Harwood.
Elsewhere, NGN is also overseeing a research site in Cumbria, where two unoccupied show homes are being supplied with 100% hydrogen. Evidence is being gathered to prove the case for hydrogen.
The projects are being closely watched. Housing has been identified as a key area for decarbonisation, as central heating is responsible for around a third of the average UK household’s emissions. As a result, the government is proposing a ban on gas boilers in new build homes from 2025. But that leaves a big question: what to do about decarbonising existing homes?
So could hydrogen be the answer? And how much attention should social landlords be giving it?
Boris Johnson’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, published last November, talked glowingly of hydrogen. The plan said: “Hydrogen is the lightest, simplest and most abundant chemical element in the universe. It could provide a clean source of fuel and heat for our homes, transport and industry.”
Yet less than a month later, the government’s Energy White Paper offered a dose of reality. “The practicalities and cost of safely converting or replacing existing networks and appliances to operate with pure hydrogen need to be fully evaluated.”
But it has not stopped ministers stating some bold ambitions. The Energy White Paper talks of a “possible pilot hydrogen town by the end of the decade”.
Another trial is due to take place in Fife, Scotland, next year, and will see around 300 homes supplied with 100% hydrogen. Run by energy firm SGN, the H100 project will involve hydrogen produced by an electrolysis plant, powered by an offshore wind turbine.
Back in Winlaton, Mr Harwood is also eyeing the prospect of a 100% trial. “We’re hoping to do some 100% hydrogen trials in the next 18 months to two years,” he says. “In the intervening time, 20% is a quick way of getting some hydrogen out there.”
But there are significant barriers with hydrogen. The government’s own Committee on Climate Change has said that hydrogen is not a “silver bullet”.
Other experts have highlighted technical hurdles. Josh Emden, a research fellow at thinktank the IPPR, says one of the issues is finding a way to produce hydrogen that is both cheap and low carbon.
There are two main ways of producing low-carbon hydrogen: ‘blue hydrogen’ and ‘green hydrogen’. Producing blue hydrogen is the cheapest. But as Mr Emden says: “It is expensive to build the technologies and put them together to produce blue hydrogen. None of the ‘carbon capture and storage’ parts of the process have been built on a commercial scale yet.”
He adds: “The government would need to invest a huge amount into building the technologies used to produce blue hydrogen and this would take a long time.”
Green hydrogen is produced using electrolysis powered by renewable energy, making it nearly zero carbon. But cost is the issue. “Electrolysis is currently even more expensive than the process of producing blue hydrogen,” says Mr Emden. “The UK would need to build a lot more wind turbines and other low-carbon sources, and electricity prices would need to fall a lot if this method became the main way we produced hydrogen.”
Meanwhile, a report published this month by climate thinktank E3G called on the government to focus on green hydrogen to show “climate leadership”. The report argues that blue hydrogen is not zero emissions and should not be classed as ‘low carbon’.
Question marks also remain about the cost of hydrogen, bearing in mind the issue of fuel poverty. The E3G report says there is “growing evidence that hydrogen for heating will be a highly inefficient option for most of the country”. The report adds: “There are concerns that hydrogen gas would also, at present rates, be about twice as expensive as natural gas.”
As a result, the government appears to be spreading its bets. Heat pumps are also being touted as a viable mainstream option and ministers are aiming for 600,000 installations per year by 2028. However, for heat pumps to work at their best, a home must be well insulated and draught-proof to minimise heat loss.
It means social landlords are having to make some difficult spending choices without any certainty on the long-term viability of these technologies.
But some commentators are wary of the idea of backing one horse in the race to decarbonise homes. “We need both technologies and we need district heating, too,” says Mr Emden (district heating involves having a central heating station that heats a block or an area).
He adds: “There’s a fundamental point about timing. Hydrogen boilers are still being trialled but we need to be decarbonising our heat system right now – and we can with current technologies,” he adds.
Despite this, he says that investing in hydrogen is the right thing to do. “It makes sense for areas that are located close to sources of hydrogen production.”
Homes to be supplied with 100% hydrogen in H100 project in Fife
Number of heat pumps the government is targeting per year by 2028
Other experts think solutions on a regional case-by-case basis could be the answer.
Jess Ralston, an analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, says: “There’s a lot of work going on in the North East and North West where there are offshore wind bases. They can make green hydrogen and there’s already existing pipelines where hydrogen can be transported.”
In some areas hydrogen could have a significant role. But in the South, they may be much more focused on electric solutions like heat pumps because of the infrastructure, she explains.
Alan Whitehead, Labour’s shadow energy minister, sees a “so-called horses-for-courses solution”. He adds: “This will be where you are going for heat pumps or biogas on off-grid properties. Or, for on-grid properties you will have hydrogen islands. And within those islands you have a combination of individual supply and district heating arrangements.
“One thing I know for sure is that the gas system as we know it will not continue. But a universal sudden switch to hydrogen is unlikely.”
In the meantime, both he and Mr Harwood are waiting for a definite declaration by government on the future of hydrogen in homes. A hydrogen strategy is due to be published this summer and a heat and buildings strategy is also expected from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
“We need the [hydrogen] strategy to give out clear signals,” says Mr Harwood. Mr Whitehead adds: “One of the problems at the moment is the government simply can’t make its mind up.”
BEIS did not respond to a request for comment.
But as Ms Ralston concludes, keeping the options open could be the best solution: “We can’t put all our eggs in the hydrogen basket, and expect it to swoop in and save the day.”
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