The government has signalled that it will make decisions on the future uses of hydrogen in the mid-2020s. At Utility Week’s Hydrogen Forum, experts deliberated what can be achieved over the next few years to prove the viability of the technology. Lucinda Dann reports.

Although electrification and heat pumps have dominated discussions around the future of heat recently following the government’s 10 Point Plan and Heat & Buildings Strategy, it was the future of gas that took centre stage when experts from across the sector gathered at Utility Week’s Hydrogen Forum to hear how the industry is working to prepare for 2026.

This is the date by which the government has promised to make policy decisions over the future of heat in the UK, and hydrogen is expected to play a central role in both meeting the heat requirements of industrial and domestic customers, and in powering the transport sector.

How much hydrogen the UK can be expected to produce, and what the likely size of the demand will be are two key questions that the industry must wait until 2026 to find out.

Until then, the sector is working collaboratively to put together the safety case that will underpin the government’s decision, and on how to undertake the transition while keeping customers onboard.

Here are some of the hot topics that dominated discussion at the Hydrogen Forum:

Renewed interest in the wake of the recent energy crisis

Jacob Young MP, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for hydrogen, said that while initially the group was quite niche, interest in the hydrogen sector amongst his parliamentary colleagues “has now exploded”, with more and more colleagues wanting to attend. Mr Young believes that the APPG’s vision that the UK could become a global leader in low carbon hydrogen is shared more widely across parliament, with interest particularly peaked by the recent energy crisis.

Commenting on the ‘chicken or egg’ scenario on whether supply or demand should come first, Mr Young said that the APPG was disappointed at the lack of a mandate for hydrogen-ready boiler installations in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) Heat and Buildings Strategy.

“Government has committed to making a decision in 2026. If that decision is to go ahead with 100% hydrogen, and I think it will be, then we can get ahead of the game and it would give the industry the commitment it needs for demand.”

Chicken and egg over supply and demand

In the absence of such a mandate, Young pointed to the expected growth of hydrogen in transport as being a way to start bringing an element of clarity to the unanswered questions around the likely size of both supply and demand.

This was echoed by John Colgan, Business Development Manager, Buses, London Transport, who explained that while only 500 of the 9,000 buses in London’s bus fleet are electric today, and just 20 hydrogen, its entire bus fleet will have been re-contracted by 2027, offering the opportunity for a hydrogen baseload in the near future.

He confirmed that the transport sector expects the existing gas networks to play a major role in transporting hydrogen, as there is “no doubt” that a hydrogen gas grid is the most efficient and lowest carbon method.

Heat pump uptake will not undermine the case for hydrogen

With the quantity and location of hydrogen use still very much to be decided, the recent announcements from BEIS of both a target of 600,000 heat pumps installations a year by 2028, and the Clean Heat Grant, which opens in 2022, have the potential to add more uncertainty into the mix for the future of hydrogen.

However, David Watson, head of energy transition at Cadent Gas doesn’t think so. While he agreed that a significant uptake in heat pumps would change the economics of hydrogen, he said it wouldn’t undermine it.

He pointed out that, even if the government’s target was met, there would still be twice as many gas boilers being installed. This, coupled with the likely demand from industry and the transport sector, means an increased uptake would not change Cadent’s plans for the network.

Making the safety case

Speakers across the day from the gas network operators shared the critical work that each is undertaking to provide the evidence base to guarantee the safety of hydrogen for use in the network, but the presentation by the Health and Safety Executive’s Catherine Spriggs laid out how this will all be pulled together.

This evidence base must be in place in order for network operators to run trials using hydrogen, with BEIS expected to define what safety evidence will be needed in a publication due to be issued in March.

In order to do this, Spriggs shared that the HSE has recently set up a number of review groups to receive evidence from projects that are already underway, such as HyDeploy and H21. There are nine groups in total looking at different aspects of safety, with one focussed on policy and regulatory requirements.

She added that while there is an ongoing need to develop codes and standards, there are no plans to develop any regulations around hydrogen until a policy decision is made in 2026.

“There is lots of work to be done to understand what [regulation] would need to be,” she said.

The work of the review groups will feed into a safety view ready for the 2026 decision. Spriggs said BEIS is “very keen” to know about any potential “showstoppers” which would potentially require investment.

She called for “continued collaboration” across the industry and stressed the importance of involving the HSE as early into projects as possible.

Planning the transition to hydrogen

Planning the transition from today’s natural gas to hydrogen and biomethane was a consistent topic amongst the forum’s speakers.

Danielle Stewart, hydrogen programme manager at National Grid Gas (NGG), said the majority of the system should be able to be repurposed, except the high-grade steel assets. These would need to be doped with oxygen or new pipework laid, with new pipelines also being needed to connect new hydrogen customers and for security of supply.

“We think we can do [the transition], its all about planning,” she said, adding that the real challenge is the scale of the task at hand.

Stella Matthews, hydrogen programme manager at Northern Gas Networks (NGN) also spoke about the practicalities of the switch over, pointing to the move from town gas to natural gas in the 1960s as being able to provide a model.

She said that the transition is likely to happen over several years, and that there may be a need for some new pipework in order to isolate certain areas.

“Safety-wise, we are more or less convinced that while there are still a few gaps to plug, this is a planning challenge rather than an operational one.”

While the switch-over is some way off, in the short-term both network operators and BEIS are exploring the options around introducing low amounts of hydrogen into the system through a ‘blend’.

Both NGG and NGN are trialling blends in order to understand how consumers, especially industrial ones, can accept blends, and if there is any flexibility in their requirements. Matthews said that billing blends correctly “is really crucial”, with BEIS specifically looking at blending and billing so that the end consumer is not disadvantaged by the change-over.

How to transition customers

“Too often I read analysis that looks at the technical or economical aspects, but it is important to think about customers,” said Watson, adding that customers need, and lack, a trusted source for information on both the behaviour change that the industry is expecting of them, and for the transition away from natural gas itself to a low carbon technology.

While he agreed that the Institution of Gas Engineers and managers’ chief executive Oliver Lancaster’s suggestion that a physical place where customers can go and see appliances and technologies like they did during the conversion away from town gas would be helpful, he called for a body to represent the “coalition of people” who need to come together.

“Back during the town gas conversions there were regional gas boards and no choice, so was relatively easy. For this transition we need a body,” he said.

Despite it having been the government’s almost sole focus for the best part of a decade, Dr Fiona Fylan, reader in sustainable behaviour at Leeds Beckett University said the majority of customers would not welcome being presented with a myriad of choice.

She explained that people tend to go with what they know, and are driven by biases, “equally people do not like to be coerced into something,” she added.

Fylan said that what people are really concerned about is what their bills are going to look like, so need to be given good quality information.