Northern Gas Networks has unveiled a blueprint for a £22.7 billion hydrogen gas grid serving more than 3.7 million homes and 40,000 businesses in the north of England.

The H21 North of England report outlines plans to convert the gas networks in Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, York, Huddersfield, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Teesside and Newcastle to run on 100 per cent hydrogen over a period of seven years starting in 2028.

The report, produced in partnership with Cadent and Equinor, also proposes a six-phase rollout across the rest of the country which would extend the hydrogen gas grid to a further 12 million homes by 2050. It could eventually provide 70 per cent of all domestic, industrial and commercial heating in the UK.

It says the project has the potential to deliver the “deep decarbonisation” of heating, cutting carbon emissions by more than 258 million tonnes per year by 2050 and meeting over 80 per cent of the UK’s remaining reduction target.

“If rolled out UK-wide, this detailed engineering solution has the potential to decarbonise 70 per cent of domestic heat by 2050 and represents a huge leap towards our country meeting the climate change challenge,” said Dan Sadler, H21 programme director at Northern Gas Networks.

“If the government is to meet its legally-binding carbon reduction targets, it cannot afford to miss out on the opportunities presented by decarbonising the UK gas network and its associated impact on other industries.”

The hydrogen would initially be extracted from natural gas using a process called auto thermal reformation.

For the first phase of the project covering the north of England, the fuel would be likely be produced at a 12.15GW facility at Easington near Hull capable of delivering up to 110TWh of heat each year – more than enough to meet the 85TWh of annual demand on the grid.

The carbon dioxide released as a by-product of the process would be captured and then stored in saline aquifers under the North Sea. The hydrogen itself would be stored in nearby salt caverns to help meet winter peaks in demand and would be transported to local distribution networks via a new high-pressure transmission system.

Over the longer term, the gas could also be extracted by passing surplus renewable electricity through water – a process known as electrolysis.

Sadler told Utility Week the conversion could be funded under the same regulatory asset base model used to pay for the existing gas and electricity networks. This would minimise costs and spread them across all consumers over a number of years.

On this basis, the financial impact of the first phase of the project would peak in 2034 when it would add 7 per cent to the typical annual energy bill.

The conversion could also be completed quicker and cheaper by splitting the workforce into three teams – one for the North West, one for the North East and one for Yorkshire.

Sadler said individual customers would have their gas supply disconnected for a maximum of five days: “But actually for the most vulnerable customers it would be less than one day because you would target them first.”

He said the aim of the H21 programme is to provide the evidence needed by the government to make a policy decision on whether to proceed with hydrogen conversion in the early 2020s.

“The only reason we can’t actually make a policy decision now – not withstanding political will and short-term politics – is because we’re still in the process of gathering the remaining pieces of safety evidence to confirm that 100 per cent hydrogen represents a comparable risk to natural gas or town gas,” he added.

The next phase of the programme will be to undertake the front end engineering and design for the project over a period of three to four years beginning in 2019. This should enable a final investment decision to be made by 2023.

Sadler said live trials are also likely to be conducted in “very small areas” over the winter of 2022/23 to “really underpin the economics and just give a bit more confidence in the end-to-end system.”

He said the project has strong local support, not only because of the benefits in terms of decarbonisation and air quality, but also because it would support “tens of thousands of jobs for decade after decade” in one of the UK’s least economically productive areas.

Henrik Solgaard Andersen, H21 programme director at Equinor, said: “Across the world, industry and governments are becoming ever more interested in hydrogen’s potential to play a lead role in reducing carbon emissions across whole economies.

“This report will be of interest to many countries, but the UK has the ideal mix of geography, skilled workforce and existing technology to begin deep decarbonisation of heat today.”

Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), commented: “The CCC welcome this report and recognises the potential H21 has to make a large impact in UK and global climate change obligations.

“We have advised the UK government that a credible, deliverable policy decision to provide deep decarbonisation of heat across the UK needs to be taken within the next parliament.

“The H21 North of England project has the potential to significantly help and inform and subsequently deliver on such a decision.”

Earlier this week, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published a report backing hybrid heating systems combining heats pumps with hydrogen boilers.

The report said heat pumps powered by increasingly low-carbon electricity could provide the majority of heating throughout the year, with hydrogen boilers stepping in as backup to meet winter peaks in demand.

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