Gas lobby enlists academics to hone hydrogen PR before Fife trial 3

Gas lobby enlists academics to hone hydrogen PR before Fife trial

The UK gas lobby has enlisted sociologists from an English university to help hone its messaging on why hydrogen should replace natural gas as the main fuel used to heat homes. 

Sociologists at Leeds Beckett University are working with the UK’s gas distribution networks on an industry sponsored project, with the goal of converting Britain’s gas networks to hydrogen.

It comes ahead of a major trial of hydrogen heating planned for 300 homes in Levenmouth, Fife, in 2023. This is the first in a series of demonstrations of hydrogen heating aimed at securing UK government funding for the technology, with a decision due to be made in 2026. 

Traditional natural gas heating needs to be phased out because it produces carbon emissions, which are the main cause of the climate crisis. But there is still significant controversy over which technology should replace natural gas.

Some environmental groups are critical of hydrogen, and told The Ferret it is an “expensive and unnecessary” way of decarbonising heating. They argue the gas industry is backing hydrogen because its production allows the continued extraction of fossil fuels.

Academics at other universities said it was “unfortunate” that so much funding was going into hydrogen research when other technologies could decarbonise heating far more efficiently.

The Leeds research is being undertaken as part of H21, a group of gas industry projects aimed at proving the UK gas network “can safely transport hydrogen in the future”

To date, this included producing a report aimed at ensuring concerns around hydrogen can be “addressed prior to any large-scale technology rollout”. 

This approach is far from zero carbon and keeps us locked into the same volatile system of oil and gas which is already unaffordable for millions of people.

Alex Lee, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland

The report contains results from a survey of 1000 people on their views of hydrogen.

The Fife trial – known as H100 – is being led by Scotland’s biggest gas distributor, Scottish Gas Networks, and will use hydrogen produced by a wind farm. 

Hydrogen produced using renewable energy is known as green hydrogen, because it produces no carbon emissions either when it is produced or used for heating. 

The vast majority of UK hydrogen production is currently conducted using fossil fuels, though. This means there are still considerable carbon emissions, which have a detrimental impact on the climate. 

In the future, advocates  of hydrogen say they want carbon capture and storage (CCS) to offset the emissions from this process. CCS is when carbon emissions are captured when produced and stored in rock formations under the sea. 

Hydrogen produced using CCS is known as blue hydrogen although its environmental benefits have been questioned. Stanford University last year produced a report saying that the carbon footprint from blue hydrogen may be 20 per cent higher than using coal or natural gas for heat.

Green hydrogen is also under increasing scrutiny, with opponents arguing that electricity produced by renewable sources should be used to heat homes directly – using air source and ground source heat pumps –  rather than by converting electricity to hydrogen. 

Dr David Toke, who teaches energy  politics at the University of Aberdeen, pointed out that other technologies which could decarbonise heating, such as heat pumps, “were at least four times more energy efficient compared with hydrogen”. 

Toke said: “It’s unfortunate that there’s such an imbalance of funding for research between the option of using hydrogen to provide heating services and solutions such as heat pumps.”

Alex Lee, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, questioned whether companies promoting hydrogen will “be honest with the public about the fact it is produced by fossil fuels”. 

Lee said: “Hydrogen from fossil gas is an expensive and unnecessary way to decarbonise heating due to its reliance on dodgy technologies like carbon capture and storage which might never work at the scale proponents claim.

“This approach is far from zero carbon and keeps us locked into the same volatile system of oil and gas which is already unaffordable for millions of people. Using Hydrogen from renewable electricity for heat is an inefficient and expensive use of energy, which should be used to directly heat homes rather than converting electricity to hydrogen power.”

A spokesperson from the Energy Networks Association, the trade body which represents the UK’s gas distributors, said the work with Leeds Beckett “was one of the first research projects to explore customer perceptions of hydrogen’s use for heating”. 

They said: “It highlighted the significant gaps in understanding and awareness that exists around energy use and its contribution to carbon emissions.

“Domestic customers are at the heart of the energy transition, and it’s essential that they are involved and consulted on their views and requirements of new energy technologies right from the start, in order to make an informed choice.

“Hydrogen has a vital role in the UK’s net zero future, a point acknowledged internationally as well as by the Committee on Climate Change.”

A spokesperson for Leeds Beckett University said: “Our academics conduct robust research that meets stringent ethical criteria, aimed at identifying how consumers will make future choices about energy across a range of solutions including hydrogen, solar and heat pumps.”

Photo Credit: iStock/Alexey Rezvykh

  1. While it’s apparent the “blue” hydrogen offers limited, if any, carbon emission reduction, “green” hydrogen does have advantages not mentioned in the article.

    With Scotland’s huge renewable potential from wind, storing energy as hydrogen through electrolysis allows it to be used when required rather than when the wind blows. It could also be distributed via the existing mains gas network, accessing the large areas of our cities where multi-storey living makes ground- and air-sourced heat pumps impractical. Many newer boilers are “hydrogen ready”, and air-source pumps cannot reach water temperatures which some existing, radiator based, central heating system rely on and which would therefore need to be replaced. These infrastructure efficiencies will at least partly offset the energy lost through the inefficiency of the process of producing the hydrogen.

  2. I agree with the first comment who said most of it. I cannot see how heat pumps could heat large areas of Glasgow, for example Shawlands where the tenements would make it very hard to implement. Even when I investigated heat pumps for my house the lowest quote was over five times a gas boiler and could not guarantee 19c temperature in the winter. For an “emergency” I see lots of talk but little tangible happening.

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