Can hydrogen trials really offer choice?

Gas networks must confront customers’ desire to have a choice over how their homes are heated in the future, according to an academic specialising in hydrogen projects.

Professor Zoe Robinson, of Keele University, shared research with Utility Week showing even those supportive of trials of hydrogen for heat feel it is their right to be able to opt out.

In response, Sarah Williams, of Wales & West Utilities, pointed out that if hydrogen is eventually rolled out for domestic heating, “we won’t have a choice”.

Both experts were speaking on a Utility Week webinar, in association with Radius Systems, on engaging consumers around the potential for hydrogen.

Much of the conversation revolved around the contentious topic of hydrogen’s role in decarbonising domestic heating, where the panel accepted the need to tackle both consumer concerns and a general lack of knowledge.

Derek Muckle, director of innovation and technology at Radius, argued that cracking the communication element was as important as overcoming technical barriers.

He said: “Aside from all the engineering, technical and commercial arguments, the biggest challenge we face is how we communicate and how we seek to present information and persuade people that this is not a big, scary proposition.”

The government is due to set out the future role of hydrogen in decarbonising domestic heat in 2026. Informing its decision will be results from the first hydrogen village trial, which will take place in one of two locations currently being considered.

Cadent and British Gas announced in March that for its proposed pilot in Whitby participants would be given a choice – to receive hydrogen through a conversion of the existing network or to stay on natural gas, delivered through newly-laid pipes.

However, the rival proposal in Redcar, led by Northern Gas Networks, would see a full conversion to hydrogen for the 2,000 homes and businesses taking part.

Wales & West Utilities is a partner in the latter scheme and Williams explained that support among residents was high, with 75% saying they were positive about it and only 5% negative.

She said this strength of feeling and the need to show evidence of real-world conversion of the gas network were the basis for not offering an opt-out in Redcar.

The company’s director of regulation and asset strategy said: “In reality, when it comes to us switching consumers over if hydrogen is given the go-ahead, we won’t have choice. There won’t be natural gas and hydrogen in the streets for people to choose from.”

Robinson shared research from participants in the HyDeploy project in Winlaton, near Gateshead, where (unlike in the 100% hydrogen village trials) hydrogen was blended into the gas network and pumped into 700 homes and businesses.

The percentage of survey respondents saying they were pleased to be part of the trial grew from 66% at the outset to 78% when it finished. At that point, 70% wanted to continue receiving blended hydrogen into their homes.

However, she highlighted some universal concerns around cost and safety, as well as the impact on appliances and on insurance. She also pointed to different reactions from owner-occupier and social housing respondents – and hence the need for alternative responses.

On the desire for choice, she said: “Even some people that were supportive of the trial itself just on principle felt it was wrong not to have that opportunity to opt out.”

She stressed the need for gas networks and other proponents of a hydrogen future to invest in community engagement, saying: “We are talking about the costs more from a technical point of view but let’s not skimp on the resource that goes into communication. That’s not seeing communication only as information that we present. It’s providing the opportunity for people to have one-to-one, face-to-face conversations to help alleviate concerns.

“In general when we look at technical solutions we tend not to put sufficient resource into communication and the resourcing of people to do it – people to talk to people.”

James Earl, director of gas at the Energy Networks Association, insisted that the trade body took a technology agnostic view of decarbonisation and was a “firm advocate for a whole-system approach”.

He said backing multiple technologies to play a role in replacing natural was the only way to truly give customers choice.

He added: “Yes, there’s a challenge in the here and now about choice on these trials but what they are actually trying to do is trial the use of hydrogen so that it becomes a choice in the future.”

The panel also discussed the wider role of hydrogen in the economy, including supporting industry, its storage capabilities and its potential in generation. The full recording can be viewed here.