Cadent Gas: investing to drive the hydrogen energy revolution

Why building a hydrogen network across the north west will redefine the UK’s energy mix and ensure our ambitious net zero carbon targets are met by 2050.

Between 1967 and 1977, the UK invested over £100 million in a project to convert every gas cooker, central heating and hot water boiler from town gas to run on cheap, newly discovered natural gas.

Having been found beneath the North Sea in 1965, this fuel was the obvious replacement for the expensive and toxic mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide that had been manufactured since the 19th century and piped to homes via a nationwide network.

The change was a deliberate energy revolution. Natural gas was cheaper, safer, more secure and offered a realistic competitor to the electrical heating being delivered on the back of an emerging gas turbine and nuclear-powered generation industry.

Half a century later, we need a similar new energy revolution if we are to become a net zero carbon emitter by 2050; another deliberate revolution driven by central government policy and backed by public investment to accelerate us away from natural gas and its harmful CO2 emissions.

According to Dr Angela Needle, Director of Strategy at Cadent Gas, the company responsible for delivering gas to a quarter of the UK’s homes, a return to hydrogen is the obvious place for this revolution to start. Needle says:

The net zero challenge is a game changer for hydrogen.

She adds that hydrogen’s carbon free credentials mean it can no longer be overlooked as a vital companion to electrification on the road to net zero.

“Much more energy goes down the gas pipe then goes down electrical wires, so when you are moving to a net zero energy strategy you can't simply shift everything to the electricity system. We have to decarbonise the gas network,” explains Needle.

Investing in the hydrogen future

Cadent has just announced plans to invest in the HyNet project to build the UK’s first large-scale hydrogen network in the North West of England. This is the first step towards accelerating the use of hydrogen in the UK’s de-carbonisation strategy.

The plan will see hydrogen produced at industrial scale by the UK’s first low carbon hydrogen plant at Essar Oil UK’s Stanlow refinery in Ellesmere Port. This will produce some 3TWh of hydrogen and, according to Cadent, in the process will capture over 95 percent of the carbon-dioxide created.

By 2026, the new pipeline will then take the hydrogen to energy intensive industries in the HyNet cluster and then on to Liverpool and Manchester for domestic, transport and industrial use.

As a fuel, hydrogen is very flexible and very versatile. It can be stored as liquid or gas, piped and blended using the existing gas network, and its energy extracted by either burning or by using it to create electricity via fuel cells.

Needle says “the biggest challenge is stimulating the market so we know there will be demand for hydrogen.”

Meeting the domestic energy challenge

This shift away from methane-based natural gas in the UK is, she says, critical as, while cleaner burning than coal or oil, it still comes with a substantial carbon emissions footprint.

Not least at a domestic level where, according to the Office for National Statistics’ UK Environmental Accounts 2019, UK households were responsible for a quarter of the total UK greenhouse gas emissions.

And while the UK government's current ambition to outlaw the installation of gas boilers in all new build homes by 2025 is an important step forward, finding a solution that works for the 40 million or so households that are already connected to the gas network is critical.

Return to a hydrogen blend

Meeting this challenge is one of the drivers behind Cadent’s investment in the £7 million HyDeploy project with Keele University to supply a blend of hydrogen and natural gas to 100 homes and 30 faculty buildings across the campus.

Early results from the Keele project show that a 20 percent volume blend allowed customers to continue using their gas supply without having to change appliances.

“The point of the tests at Keele is to prove that we can start blending hydrogen into the network today and take carbon emissions out of our heat usage now, provided we can get hydrogen into the grid,” says Needle. She points out that legislation currently limits the amount of hydrogen to 0.1 percent by volume. “We have first to change that legal limit.”

Just as was seen during the UK’s move to natural gas, such changes require a major commitment and investment by government, plus effort by manufacturers to create and install the new generation of cookers and boilers capable of running on 100 percent hydrogen.

I think innovation is going to happen in this space, but what we need is some goals from government to make it as easy as possible to transition from one energy source to the other.

“One thing I've learned the hard way is that it's really difficult to force people to change behaviours. So if we can ensure that they have largely the same boiler that looks the same without it being a drastic change, it will be easier to deliver.”

Addressing the wider carbon targets

Transitioning the UK towards hydrogen goes beyond simply decarbonising our gas supply. As Needle points out, its versatility and ability to be stored and transported is key to tackling hard to decarbonise areas such as public transport, shipping, heavy goods vehicles and personal travel.

And despite the increasing pressure being placed on the UK’s economy by the COVID-19 pandemic, the drive to tackle climate change and meet our net zero targets by 2050 has, says Needle, not gone away.

The energy debates don't appear to have been side-lined and support for net zero has never been higher.

“Yes, they will be thinking about what we spend money on in recovery to kick-start the economy, but there is universal agreement that hydrogen will make a positive contribution towards meeting our net zero targets.”

Net zero at fair and reasonable costs

Since hydrogen is produced using electricity, it’s also the perfect solution for at-scale electricity storage, sitting alongside emerging battery technologies to smooth the current seasonal peaks in energy demand – and so ensuring that the UK’s vast zero-carbon on and offshore wind power resources are available even when the wind doesn’t blow.

The cost of electricity is basically leading the cost of hydrogen. Currently natural gas is very cheap so there will be a different future where gas is linked to the price of renewable power to stimulate that market.

“That is the difficult bit because you are affecting people’s pockets – so doing it in a way that makes sense and doesn't overly affect bills is important.”

For Needle the difficult issue will be less around convincing the public that hydrogen is the safe, reliable low carbon energy solution and more around bridging this affordability gap as the UK’s transitions from cheap, polluting natural gas.

“We know that hydrogen will inevitably cost more than natural gas so it's hard to believe that people's bills won't be impacted in the same way that the renewables obligation saw all consumers paying for our wind power revolution. The challenge will be making sure the choices offered are fair and reasonable,” she says.

“When we roll it out, we have to roll it out the right way,” she adds. “As a distribution company we have to work very closely with the energy retailers and local councils to make sure that this is not just about adopting hydrogen, but about making every property net zero in ways that suit people and the individual situation that they are in.”