As we have previously noted, due to the cost-of-living crisis and ambitions to hit net zero, hydrogen has been rising on the agenda over the last two years. In 2019, the UK was the first major economy to commit to a legally binding net zero target by 2050.[i] In 2020, Boris Johnson’s government published the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution.[ii] A significant aspect of this plan relates to hydrogen power. Currently, building heat accounts for 23% of the UK’s total emissions.[iii] Low-carbon hydrogen is being focused on as one of the ways that heat in buildings can be decarbonised, for example, through hydrogen boilers[iv]. By 2030, the UK aims to have 5GW of hydrogen production capacity.[v] The Climate Change Committee projects that by 2050, there will be a 22 TWh demand for hydrogen for heating and cooking.[vi] However, the Ten Point Plan was not the UK’s first consideration of incorporating hydrogen power into its homes.
83% of domestic homes in the UK use natural gas for heating and cooking, generating over a third of the UK’s carbon emissions.[vii] H21 is a set of projects led by Northern Gas Networks that reuse the existing gas network to transport hydrogen. The first project investigated Leeds’ gas network and produced the Leeds City Gate feasibility study in 2016, which concluded that the UK’s gas distribution networks could be converted from natural gas to 100% hydrogen in an economically viable way that was not too expensive for the consumer.[viii] In Leeds, the total cost to convert to 100% hydrogen was calculated to be around £2 bn ($2.6 bn USD).[ix] In 2021, a 1 km test distribution grid for H21 was completed in Cumbria.[x]
HyDeploy is another existing hydrogen project. It focuses on blending hydrogen with fossil gas, which is the fastest way to phase in the use of hydrogen. Hydrogen blending uses the existing grid, and current appliances are designed to work with a blend of up to 23% hydrogen, meaning that disruptive and expensive changes to people’s homes are unnecessary.[xi] The carbon saving of hydrogen blending is equivalent to removing 2.5 million cars from the road.[xii] The first HyDeploy trial happened in 2019 at Keele University, where 20% blended hydrogen was delivered to 100 homes and 30 campus buildings, reducing the need for 27 tonnes of carbon. The second trial began in 2021 in the village of Winlaton, Gateshead, which successfully delivered 20% hydrogen to 668 homes, a shop, a school, and a church.[xiii]
H100 is the precursor to the hydrogen test village. It is a smaller-scale hydrogen neighbourhood of around 300 homes in Fife that will be delivered hydrogen gas produced by an offshore wind turbine-powered electrolysis plant.[xiv] Construction began in 2022, and the hydrogen network should go live in 2024 before the project is completed in 2027.[xv] This will be the first project to supply clean power to produce hydrogen for domestic heating, and it’s estimated to save 2,208kg of CO2e per household per year.[xvi]
The hydrogen village trial is a scaled-up version of H100, converting around 1,000-2,000 properties to hydrogen or alternative heating solutions instead of natural gas.[xvii] It was hoped that a location for the trial would be chosen in 2023 so that rollout of the trial could begin in 2025. However, in July, it was announced that the village of Whitby in Chesire would no longer be used as the location because of a lack of support from residents, despite the promise of a £2,500 ($3,222.92) incentive for those taking part.[xviii]
There is a drawback to the use of hydrogen, which means that it should not be seen as a magic bullet solution. Although when burned, clean hydrogen does not produce carbon dioxide, it is an indirect greenhouse gas if it is leaked unburnt accidentally or intentionally vented for safety reasons. Hydrogen is a short-lived climate pollutant, and if released unburnt, it can increase the warming impact of methane. Over a 100-year timeframe, hydrogen has a global warming potential 12 to 13 times greater than carbon dioxide.[xix] For this reason, Green Alliance advise that hydrogen should only be used in very well-regulated and monitored industrial clusters where there is an extremely low leakage rate.[xx] They also argue that hydrogen blending in the national gas network will only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 4%. They instead push for heat pumps because the current heat pump subsidy is six to nine times cheaper per tonne of carbon dioxide abated than hydrogen, even with the lowest leakage rates[xxi]. You can read more about the benefits of heat pumps and the challenges of their rollout here on the Zero Carbon Academy website.
The UK Government's strategy acknowledges that there is no single solution, and hydrogen will be rolled out amongst other measures such as heat pumps and heat networks.[xxii] The Ten Point plan outlines that alongside H100, the electric heat pump market will be scaled up. For the hydrogen village trial, any resident who does not want to have hydrogen piped into their home will have the option for installing other heating solutions and appliances. However, despite the suggestion that heat pumps will be a targeted technology, the rate of their installation in the UK is lagging behind other European countries. Currently, the UK is installing around 55,000 heat pumps per year, whereas France is installing 600,000, which also happens to be the UK Government’s target by 2028.[xxiii]
[vii] H21- About H21
[xiv] SGN- H100 Fife
[xix] Department for Energy Security and Net Zero & Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy- Atmospheric Implications of Increased Hydrogen Use & Hauglustaine et al- Climate benefit of a future hydrogen economy
Gemma recently graduated with a degree in International Development. She is currently studying for an MSc in Sustainable Urbanism, which examines urban planning and urban design through a sustainability lens. “I’m passionate about addressing sustainability challenges in a holistic and pragmatic way. Zero Carbon Academy's diverse range of services targets many of the areas that need support if we are to transition to a liveable future. I’m excited to see the impact that the Academy makes.”