Can existing gas networks in the UK be repurposed to safely carry 100% hydrogen in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from heat? That’s the question a suite of innovation projects, dubbed H21, led by Northern Gas Networks (NGN) is aiming to answer.
As the UK looks towards 2050 and a cleaner and greener energy future, the issue of decarbonising the way the country heats its homes and businesses needs to be addressed. But decarbonising heat presents a very large and difficult problem. The scale of energy the UK requires is 540 terrawatt hours (TWh) and the enormous swings in demand from summer to winter means that just using electricity is not a realistic solution.
For more than a century the UK has been heavily reliable on gas: it provides flexible energy at huge scale that can be stored in gigantic volumes indefinitely to be used when needed. The UK also has an existing network in place that is used by 90% of homes, businesses and industry for heat.
Replacing the gas in the networks with a low carbon fuel like hydrogen is a solution that can deliver the carbon savings the UK needs within the time scales required by the Climate Change Act and Paris Agreements. But what does the public think of this? Do they support the idea of a hydrogen gas network?
Consumer perceptions of hydrogen are currently only guessed at by the research and industry communities. As a result, gas network operators have no idea how communities and individuals would respond to the prospect of a 100% hydrogen conversion, which could change the look and feel of daily core practices like cooking and heating.
As part of the H21 project, Leeds Beckett University has been working with NGN to understand these public perceptions of hydrogen and any barriers that may exist. Using innovative social science methods, the research team is focusing on the following questions:
- How will people respond to a 100% hydrogen conversion?
- What questions do people have?
- What are people’s concerns?
- How can messages be framed to increase public support?
H2 View caught up with Stella Matthews, H21 Assistant Project Manager at Northern Gas Networks, and Dr. Fiona Fylan, a Reader at Leeds Beckett University, to find out more.
Thanks for your time today Stella and Fiona. H2 View understands stage one of the research found cleaner hydrogen energy systems to heat homes across the UK would be supported by the public. What were some of the positive things people said?
Stella Matthews (SM): As soon as they realised the environmental benefits of hydrogen they were on board, if you like. They were asking a lot of questions like why haven’t we done this before? This shocked me and wasn’t something I expected customers to say. Feedback was really positive and encouraging.
Fiona Fylan (FF): That was so true, it was kind of like they were almost saying to us: what are you waiting for? Why are you hanging around? What is so difficult about this decision? Somebody needs to act on it and make this happen as soon as possible. There was a real frustration that if we wait this long will it be too late? Will the environmental damage be too great in order for it to be addressed?
Who were the people that took part in the research?
FF: We specifically picked people for the qualitive element of the research who weren’t already on board with the hydrogen conversion. The people who took part in the research didn’t know anything about the topics. Nobody who took part in our research appreciated that every time they used gas in their homes, then that’s releasing carbon. They were mainly really horrified about that, really keen to engage with the topic and could appreciate why it’s important to do something and why things need to change.
We knew from an earlier survey that 20% support it with very few questions or concerns. But we didn’t involve them for the qualitative side of the research because they were almost too easy. We wanted the more challenging people who weren’t really engaged with the topic or really sure about it or had reservations. Without a single exception, people were like ‘why are we not doing this now, why has it taken so long to think about this?’
What are some of the benefits of switching to hydrogen?
SM: For Northern Gas Networks, I think the biggest thing for us is that we would continue to maintain that energy choice for customers. They would still have a choice between gas or electric, they wouldn’t be forced into accepting one option.
“A small change from their perspective had the potential to have a massive, massive benefit for the environment…”
The fact that the project supports decarbonisation, we’re going to reduce UK emissions from heat if we can go ahead with H21 which is a fantastic thing. It maintains the gas network, a world-class asset that has benefited from decades of investment and reinforcement, making it fit for another 100 years, carrying a cleaner gas. It will continue to carry on being used.
FF: From the research participants’ point of view as well, one thing they all seemed to pick up on is that if it were a case of relying solely on electricity, then at the moment today’s grid would not be able to cope with peak energy demand, particularly in the winter, and they did seem to see this as a major problem.
Another thing they were really keen about in terms of 100% hydrogen, is that there was no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and they did see that as a big, big thing.
SM: Yeah for them, that came across really strongly.
FF: It really did. Another thing participants picked up on as well is they’re already familiar with gas from a consumer point of view, so it’s a relatively small change. It’s interesting how for people that cook on gas at the moment, they were very attached to that, they didn’t want to have to move to electricity to do their cooking. A small change from their perspective had the potential to have a massive, massive benefit for the environment.
It sounds like participants didn’t realise that switching to hydrogen isn’t going to change their lives in the way that they thought – it’s a really small change…
SM: The fact that they would still be able to cook and heat their homes in the exact same way as they do now on gas and it would be very similar was a massive positive for them. As soon as we started to have discussions around the electric solutions, I wouldn’t say they switched off but they kind of disengaged a little bit because there was a lot more involved in that solution. Would you agree Fiona?
FF: I would yes. A lack of familiarity with it maybe from earlier experiences to thinking electricity is expensive for using that energy to heat your home on, it’s less flexible, so there was a fair bit of resistance to being forced into an electric solution.
What differences would we see if our homes were powered by hydrogen? What did participants think about this?
SM: Appliances would need to be changed. The Hy4Heat project is providing capital stimulus for manufacturers to produce hydrogen-ready appliances. For example, Baxi and Worcester Bosch have already developed hydrogen-ready boilers. When I say hydrogen-ready, it means that it would work on natural gas initially, and then would switch over to hydrogen if we converted. For the customers, this is one of the things that they wanted a lot more information on, in terms of what does the boiler look like? How would it work?
Fiona: They wanted to know if it would seem any different, even down to will it fit in the existing place in the kitchen? Also, in terms of the benefits of hydrogen-ready appliances, people were prepared to pay a bit extra, but the concept of having to replace all your gas appliances in one go is a big barrier for a lot of people. The idea that it’s a natural replacement as things come to the end of their natural life span, the next appliance they buy is hydrogen-ready, that was very reassuring to them.
SM: They wanted that long lead in time as well. They didn’t want to just be expected to have to switch next week, they wanted at least six months to a year to be able to prepare themselves.
FF: By that, they would like six months to a year of information on how their local area would be converted, but longer than that in terms of is this going to happen? Do we need to be thinking about whether we going to replace our boiler with hydrogen-ready?
The research suggests that with more knowledge, the public would be more on board with using hydrogen in their homes. What do you think would be the best way to better inform the public on this alternative energy source?
SM: One of the really rounded things that came through was that people want to be taken on that journey now. They want to be a part of this journey that we’re on looking at alternative energy sources, they didn’t want to just be told. They want to be informed and kind of involved in the decision making.
FF: They want to understand why. If they don’t understand why and what the benefits are then it’s just seen as a hassle, an inconvenience, an enforced change. If they understand why these changes are happening and what the benefits it could bring are, then they are interested and enthusiastic about it.
Another thing we found in the research, and this might be a no brainer, is that people are not motivated by government targets. If it’s all put forward in terms of net zero, then very few people are going to pay much attention. If you talk about it in terms of protecting the environment and therefore ourselves and future generations, that’s when people get interested.
SM: That future generation concern did come through quite clearly. When you start talking about the environment we’re going to leave for our grandchildren, people were then motivated to say ‘I want to do this because I want the Earth to be better for my grandchildren, and if I have to make the change then I will’.
“…they weren’t really suspicious of using hydrogen as a fuel at all, they weren’t nervous about it…”
What will you be looking at in phase two of the research?
FF: Phase one was very much trying to understand people, their perspectives, concerns, reassurances, it’s almost like internal facing information. This next stage is producing external facing information, so it’s understanding how to have these conversations with the public, how to explain things in terms of the amount of information and also how to talk with them and how to encourage them how to get involved and find out more.
SM: One of the takeaways from phase one was that they wanted the information of what’s happening now and they want to know when the decisions are being made, they didn’t want to hear ‘maybes’ or ‘mights’ – they want to just be told the facts.
FF: They wanted the safety tests to have been completed before any announcement is made. That was interesting because they just wanted to assume things were safe, they weren’t really suspicious of using hydrogen as a fuel at all, they weren’t nervous about it all. They assumed that if it was piped into a home it would be safe, it was not something they needed to spend any energy worrying about.
What would you say to someone who has safety concerns about converting to hydrogen?
SM: As a gas network, we would never do or implement anything that isn’t at least as safe as what we currently implement today. We are working very closely with other gas networks and the HSE to ensure this.
Customers have a trust in the networks which again was something positive that came out of the research. We thought we would come against a lot of questions around is it safe, how do you know it’s safe, and some other associations that you get traditionally with hydrogen. That didn’t seem to be a problem. We are looking at all the critical safety evidence at the moment with H21 both in Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the NIC project and findings will be released for Phase 1 later this year.
FF: The important question to ask is what are those concerns? What are you worried might happen? Unexpectedly, we found that the public definitely wanted more information on the CCS part of the process. They had far more questions about how carbon could be captured and stored safely, than they did about the safety of the hydrogen.