Switching the gas in our pipelines from natural gas to hydrogen… what’s the point? Isn’t natural gas being touted as a promising decarbonization solution? Burning natural gas instead of coal certainly generates roughly half the amount of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity. However, in terms of meeting global climate change commitments, emissions reductions on this scale are simply not up to the task. Considering 22% of energy used worldwide is now derived from natural gas, the way we use it will have a huge impact on our chances of avoiding climate catastrophe.
In this interview, cH2ange spoke to Dan Sadler, a chartered engineer with nearly 20 years experience in the gas industry. He started with British Gas on a graduate training scheme and then spent the first half of his career designing and building high pressure natural gas pipelines and modifying low pressure distribution networks infrastructure. He joined Northern Gas Network in 2012, initially as Head of Major Projects and Investment Planning, before moving into the role of Head of Energy Futures. Dan is currently Programme Director of a UK-based project known as H21 Leeds City Gate. Dan was Technical Advisor on the Future of the Gas Networks to the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy throughout 2016 designing their £25m hy4heat programme.
Yes, entirely. The UK’s Climate Change Act (2008) requires an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions relative to 1990 levels by 2050. To someone who has spent their entire career dealing with big energy projects, this is a challenge on an unbelievable scale!
People often talk about what I refer to as kilowatt or megawatt solutions — for a terawatt problem. I wanted a project that could play centrally towards meeting the challenge of the Climate Change Act, to be on the right scale to make a tangible impact on the real 2050 challenge. This led to the questions: can we put a totally decarbonized gas in the gas network? And if so, can it be sourced credibly?
Given that roughly 40% of the UK’s energy is for heat, which is nearly entirely derived from natural gas, converting this network to a low or zero carbon gas would be a major contribution to the Climate Change Act. Achieving 100% hydrogen (noting that prior to the 1960s the UK used town gas, which was 50% hydrogen) would fundamentally solve the problem with a long-lasting and sustainable solution.
Absolutely yes. Ultimately it could bring about the onset of the world’s first 100% hydrogen economy. But let’s think in the shorter term first. It allows you to use your existing infrastructure that’s already paid for; it gives the customers of tomorrow the same choice as customers today: gas or electric; and it involves far less disruption to homes and highways compared to decarbonization strategies based on only electricity.
Then, because the gas network is designed to meet peak demand this means it is significantly oversized for most of the time to maintain energy security in very cold conditions. We can take advantage of this inherent capacity by building fuelling stations to provide bulk availability of hydrogen across cities. This solves air quality issues by displacing oil and decarbonizing transport by providing fuel for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Even if you don’t believe in climate change, it’s a smart move because it will save lives through huge improvements in air quality.
Since over 50% of the UK’s electricity is produced via the gas grid, another benefit is helping to decarbonize this power generation. Hydrogen conversion would enable centralized decarbonized generation without expensive retrofitting of power stations for carbon capture. Equally importantly, it could also start to decentralize electricity generation. The next generation of boilers could be combined heat and power units, producing electricity locally or in the home, from hydrogen gas. This would reduce demand from the electric grid, which would be vital if battery vehicles become more widespread.
Another benefit is that 100% hydrogen would effectively enable unlimited system coupling between gas and electric grids. So where we have constrained energy, such as wind farms or large solar farms, we can couple these systems to ensure we take advantage of their geographic location to use the energy in the most effective manner. System coupling will be really important in supporting the efficient integration of renewable energy.
“We must remember that doing nothing is not an option.”
Basically, 100% hydrogen unlocks everything: heat, electric, transport, system coupling, and a long term stable future. Furthermore it allows trading of renewable energy between countries with surplus to countries with shortages through a globally transferable energy vector i.e. Hydrogen.
The main obstacle to the onset of a hydrogen society is the need for widespread hydrogen availability. Well, H21 is about putting terawatt hours of hydrogen into the gas grid. Fuelling stations would be built off the gas network, ensuring total fuel security, thus facilitating the rapid growth of hydrogen vehicles. Drivers wouldn’t suffer range anxiety because there would be no limitation on the fuelling infrastructure — stations could be built anywhere across the network.
The onset of the hydrogen economy would create tens of thousands of jobs in the UK, decade after decade, as the conversion is incremental over time. Additionally all the associated technology and intellectual property will be based in the first country to implement the project. As always, the first mover gets the biggest benefit.
“The customer has to understand that some change is inevitable.”
For example, it’s been fifty years since we converted to natural gas, but because the UK was the first to do it on such a scale, we continue to export our engineers around the world, because they are regarded as some of the world’s best gas engineers. The UK has had enormous economic benefit from being the first mover in the original gas industry.
Hydrogen conversion is often compared to a ‘do nothing’ option. But we must remember that doing nothing is not an option. We cannot continue to burn unabated natural gas and meet climate change obligations, it’s impossible. The customer has to understand that some change is inevitable. The business as usual option means forgetting about climate change, which would be a tragedy.
Hydrogen conversion would mean absolute minimal disruption for users. You might need a new boiler, heater or cooker, but there would be no need to fundamentally change the internals of properties for example removing radiator systems or dig up all the roads to rebuild / reinforce the electricity networks. We’d carry on using energy in the same way as we do today.
The all-electric alternative would mean fundamental changes to everything in the house. No gas fires, no gas cookers… boilers and radiators would need replacing. A KPMG report two years ago calculated that an all-electric world — even though in reality it’s next to impossible — would cost £300 billion more than a 100% hydrogen conversion.
If we don’t start to take large-scale hydrogen conversion seriously, I can’t see how we can meet climate change commitments. Governments need to be realistic about meeting the challenge, and the bulk availability of hydrogen for heat, transport and electric will have a critical role to play. In the context of a big energy change, the timescale within which we have to take action is… absolutely no time at all.