The Australian helping Britain’s gas network switch to green hydrogen

At this time of year, we all feel like cranking up the heating, yet even if we’re willing to face the quarterly bill, we also know there’s an environmental cost to pay.

By John Grainger
Saturday, 9th January 2021, 12:00 pm

But imagine there wasn’t. The promise of entirely sustainable heating will be with us by 2050 if the government’s plans to wean the country off natural gas and onto hydrogen come to fruition.

The government has already committed the UK to achieving Net Zero – effectively no carbon emissions – by that date, and its Energy White Paper published last month announced its intention to aim for 5GW of hydrogen production by 2030, backed up by a new £240m net-zero Hydrogen Fund for low-carbon hydrogen production.

There are already major initiatives afoot to research the feasibility and implications of the scheme, and Leeds-based Ashley Muldrew is at the heart of them. As a senior analyst with the Energy Futures team at Northern Gas Networks (NGN), she has helped to formulate the strategy set out in the company’s five-year business plan to meet the zero-carbon emissions target.

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“The challenge with natural gas is that its ongoing use in the home isn’t compatible with Net Zero,” she told The Yorkshire Post.

“That’s really behind the push for hydrogen conversion – it’s about trying to reuse the assets in that Net Zero world.”

The 85 per cent of UK homes currently connected to the gas network are responsible for as much as 40 per cent of the country’s total carbon emissions, so decarbonising the network through hydrogen conversion would go a long way towards achieving Net Zero.

Hydrogen is more environmentally sustainable than fossil fuels such as natural gas because it can be made from water – and when it’s burned it gives off nothing but water.

“There are different production methods for hydrogen,” said Adelaide graduate Ms Muldrew, who is currently on secondment from Australian Gas Networks, a subsidiary of NGN’s parent company, CKI.

“‘Green’ hydrogen is made by using electrolysis to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. As long as it’s split using renewable electricity, that is zero-emission.

“‘Blue’ hydrogen is produced by splitting natural gas into carbon and hydrogen. That process does produce carbon emissions, but the definition of blue hydrogen is that its production method is coupled with carbon capture and storage. So all our blue hydrogen is actually zero-emission.”

A third type, ‘grey’ hydrogen, is made the same way as the blue variety, but without the carbon capture and storage. That means it is not zero-emission, so it is not an option being pursued by NGN or the government.

The ideal, of course, would be a network running purely on green hydrogen, but Ms Muldrew says this will only be feasible over the longer term.

“Electrolysis is a well-established process, but the challenge is about the roll-out of those technologies at scale. That’s where blue hydrogen comes in, because it can help achieve emissions reductions quite quickly in the short term, whereas the costs of green hydrogen are quite high at the moment, given the maturity of that market and technology.

“So we need the cost to come down as the scale increases, so it becomes a more viable longer-term option. Post-2050, we’d certainly be looking at green hydrogen.”

NGN, which distributes gas to homes and businesses across Yorkshire, the North East and northern Cumbria, is the lead partner in H21, a collaborative initiative which aims to prove that the existing UK gas network can be converted to transport 100 per cent hydrogen.

So far, two major testing programmes have been carried out under H21, looking, among other things, at the consequences of hydrogen leakage.

This addresses an issue that is central to the whole project: safety. Hydrogen has a reputation for extreme flammability, but it’s that very property that makes it a serious contender as a fuel for the future.

“Natural gas is a flammable gas too – we need it to be flammable, because otherwise the appliances wouldn’t work,” says Ms Muldrew.

“Hydrogen is a different gas, so it’s got different characteristics and the types of safety measures or mitigations that we might need to put in place might be different. That’s what we’re trying to understand – the properties of the gas if there is a leak, or what the implications of that might be.”

The results from Phase One of the research are expected to be released early this year, but in the meantime, a hydrogen micro-grid is being built in Cumbria, at RAF Spadeadam, a facility used to research fires and explosions.

The government’s plans en-
visage trialling homes using hydrogen for heating and cook-ing, and hydrogen-ready boilers and cookers have already been developed. The aim is to start with a Hydrogen Neighbourhood in 2023, create a Hydrogen Village by 2025, and a Hydrogen Town before the end of the decade.

But all this could hit a brick wall if it faces widespread public distrust. So far, though, no such misgivings have been identified.

Leeds Beckett University’s H21 research has found billpayers are interested in the environmental impact of the gas they use, but cautious of the costs of replacing cookers and boilers.

“Customers seem to be quite supportive of the hydrogen opportunity,” says Ms Muldrew.

“They just want to hear the definites: tell me what’s going on, when, and how it’s going to impact me.”