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U.K. Setting Its Sights Too Low for Hydrogen Heating in Homes

The U.K. should move faster to replace gas with hydrogen in domestic heating, as the country’s pipes will be ready to make the switch in just two years, according to the head of a pilot project.

While the pipes will be ready, what’s missing is the hydrogen that will run through them. The government has committed to developing 5 gigawatts of production capacity for the fuel and the first town heated entirely by it by 2030. Tim Harwood, who is running a pilot project near Carlisle, northern England, says much more is possible by then.

“We should be more ambitious,” said Harwood, project director at H21, a series of test projects that aim to prove the gas grid can be converted to hydrogen. “We’ll be ready to roll this out to multiple towns by the end of the decade.”The tests are being carried out on a wild hillside at a Royal Air Force base. It’s where gas was tested when the U.K. switched from coal in the 1960s, and the project’s stakeholders hope a transition to hydrogen will have the same success. The gas industry wants to start blending methane with 20% hydrogen from 2023, as a quick way to reduce some of the emissions in heating. The main logistical obstacle is available hydrogen supply. The government is due to publish its strategy for hydrogen in the next few weeks. The industry is hoping it will include subsidies to get production underway.

But not everyone is sure it’s the right approach. Richard Lowes, a research fellow at the University of Exeter said he’s “unconvinced” that having any hydrogen in pipes in people’s homes is a good idea right now.

“The biggest question is where does the hydrogen come from,” he said. “Because it’s much more energy-intensive to produce than electricity so systemically it looks quite poor, because it’s just so inefficient.”

Green hydrogen is created using renewable electricity, but it’s a long way off being at the scale needed for industry. Blue hydrogen, made from natural gas with the carbon emissions buried under ground, is a step ahead in terms of development.

“We need the hydrogen strategy,” said Antony Green, project director for hydrogen at National Grid Plc. “Private investment is waiting to see what business model the government comes up with and then they’ll make their decisions” on where to invest.

BP Plc is studying a project to build the U.K.’s largest blue-hydrogen plant. The H2Teesside facility in northeast England could produce 1 gigawatt of hydrogen — a fifth of the U.K. government’s target — by 2030, and would capture and store 2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. BP didn’t disclose cost estimates or sources of financing.

Pilot Project

At the pilot site in Spadeadam, 45 miles (72 kilometers) west of Newcastle, northern England, a row of three terraces houses are kitted out with hydrogen heating systems and connected to a network to assess how the fuel behaves when it’s in pipelines. This will then be connected to a test transmission grid to replicate the network used for gas. One of the key benefits in swapping to hydrogen from gas is that it involves very little disruption to consumers and uses infrastructure already in place, Harwood said. About 80% of local gas grids have already been replaced with plastic that is suitable for use with hydrogen.

Buildings account for a third of the U.K.’s greenhouse gas emissions. With more than 23 million properties connected to its gas network, making the sector greener is critical to tackling climate change.

Heat pumps, which use electricity, are another potentially cheaper option. The government wants to install 600,000 of them annually by 2028.

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