Mark Horsley, chief executive, Northern Gas Networks Gas transmission/distribution, Heat networks, Policy, Opinion, Mark Horsley, Northern Gas Networks, decarbonisation, heat

"We now need to lay the groundwork to enable government to make decisions about the long-term future of heat"

Decarbonising the heat sector is one of the most pressing concerns for the energy industry today. Heating our homes, businesses and industry accounts for nearly half of all energy use in the UK and a third of our carbon emissions. Meeting our target of reducing emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050 implies decarbonising nearly all heat in buildings and most industrial processes.

We now need to lay the groundwork to enable government to make decisions about the long-term future of heat. The demands on our energy infrastructure will change as low-carbon heating technologies take over from fossil fuels, with a greater dependence on low-carbon gases such as hydrogen and biofuels, geothermal energy and electricity. Understanding how we can capitalise on our existing infrastructure to transport, manage and generate energy is vital.

Failure to meet our carbon reduction target is not an option and a complete reliance on the electrification of heat, transport and wider power demand is not realistic in terms of cost, capacity or storage potential.

The opportunity to repurpose the gas network to transport a zero-carbon gas such as hydrogen could be transformational for heat, making this alternative gas a cornerstone of a diverse and sustainable lower carbon energy mix.

The UK government has recognised hydrogen as a key pathway to decarbonising heat and there are currently several significant hydrogen projects under way in the UK testing different scenarios and advocating various approaches.

A conversion of the UK gas distribution network to 100 per cent hydrogen is a grand plan but one that will help guarantee the government hits its decarbonisation targets while delivering a new and resilient economy.

Pioneering projects such as H21 North of England, led by Northern Gas Networks, in partnership with Cadent and international energy company Equinor, are helping to lay a foundation and vision for government to set its long-term approach to deep decarbonisation of heat.

Launching next month, the H21 North of England report presents a detailed engineering solution for converting the gas networks across the north of England to hydrogen, including building a hydrogen production facility that can deliver low-carbon heat for major cities including Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Huddersfield, York, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Teeside.

The report will outline how we can achieve deep decarbonisation of heat by converting around one in five of the UK’s domestic properties from natural gas (methane) to clean hydrogen, representing 85TWh of annual heat demand. It will include details on intra-seasonal hydrogen storage, plans for a carbon capture and storage facility with capacity to sequester up to 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year by 2035 and details on how a hydrogen transmission system can support a hydrogen network.

H21 North of England comes at a critical time, with growing global interest in the potential of large-scale hydrogen conversion to significantly reduce carbon emissions, create and sustain many high-quality jobs and unlock technological innovation in other industries.

As an industry we must unite and work closely with government to understand the pathway that will work best at scale and be the most cost-effective, long-term answer for the UK. Network operators are currently working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to form a co-ordinated group that can draw on shared knowledge and expertise to enable a policy decision to be made on a hydrogen pathway.

Teaming leading engineers and strategists from throughout the energy industry with government has to be the next logical step, because this will enable the development of a co-ordinated strategy in line with policy decision timeline requirements.

As experts in our field we must draw on our collective knowledge base to identify the opportunities and understand the improvements that are required, working with government to align with milestones in the policy timeline. Only then will we be able to ensure that decisions can be made in time to achieve the scale of change required to deliver the long-term decarbonisation of heat and the best outcome for the nation’s energy future.

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