The government announced on 14 December that it has cancelled the proposed Northern Gas Network (NGN) trial in Redcar to replace North Sea gas with hydrogen in their power network. The reason is not enough hydrogen for the project:
“The proposed hydrogen heating village trial in Redcar cannot go ahead as designed, as the main source of hydrogen supply will not be available. As such, the government is not in a position to provide support for the trial.”
But was a shortage of hydrogen the only reason for the cancelled project?
The potential national switch from North Sea gas to hydrogen is a response to government requirements for tackling climate change. Natural gas is regarded as a major driver of global warming and by 2050 it will no longer be used in domestic households, with increasing reductions in gas use by 2035.
The current official thinking is that the UK will not reach its target net zero carbon emissions for tackling global warming without converting to hydrogen, which does not release carbon at the point of use.
Green and blue hydrogen
There are two methods for processing hydrogen. Green hydrogen, regarded as environmentally safer, is separated from oxygen in the water compound by passing carbon-neutral electricity through the liquid.
Blue hydrogen is produced by extracting carbon from natural gas. This way the gas industries process hydrogen from the fossil fuel they extract. But that releases carbon dioxide, thus contributing to climate change. A way of avoiding that is through carbon capture and storage underneath the seabed.
Green hydrogen was to be used for the Redcar trial.
In 2020 the government announced that there would be neighbourhood trials of hydrogen in domestic networks.
Two neighbourhoods were considered: communities in Ellesmere Port and Redcar (Coatham and Kirkleatham wards). But following a vocal campaign in Ellesmere Port, the only trial location remaining was Redcar.
For a number of the Redcar residents the major complaint about the trial has been the perceived lack of consultation. In addition some residents wanted a public vote.
A spokesperson for NGN said:
“We completed a consultation from May 2022 to March 2023, which included a public meeting and drop-in sessions, as well as the establishment of a panel of around 20 citizens who met to help formulate our plans. We undertook ongoing communications activity throughout the consultation, including local TV and newspaper coverage, several letters to residents in the area, an advertising campaign, a hub on the High Street, a pop-up presence in the community, and door-knocking.
“All property owners and residents were invited to have a free gas check and service visit, with over 750 completed. All were invited to complete our consultation questionnaire, facilitated through an independent research company. 699 responses from within the hydrogen community were received. This showed 76% felt positive, 19% indifferent or undecided and 5% negative. The research also indicated 89% of people would choose hydrogen, 6% electric and 5% were undecided. “
There would be no option in the trial of staying with natural gas – the network pipes would be filled with hydrogen instead.
Among the objections was concern about the power supply after the trial. Some residents feared they would not be reconnected to the gas grid, but they might be given an electric boiler with three or four times the running costs of gas.
Another worry was safety. Hydrogen is a very lightweight element. Even the slightest leak will float up to the ceiling, and the smallest spark – from an iron say – could cause an explosion.
In a different context, David McCreadie came face-to-face with volatile hydrogen in the1980s. He told me in a Facebook reply:
“As a professional diver and scientist I witnessed my Drass expert on saturation diving systems blown to bits in a hyperbaric lifeboat in Aberdeen harbour as he only charged the batteries without ventilating! Also in Persian gulf an offshore complex leg blew killing about 9. Due to hydrogen emanation. The last gas I would wish in my home.”
NGN did not offer safety vents to the Redcar project, only monitoring sensors.
Such was the worry around the dangers and costs of hydrogen a number of the potential guinea pigs developed mental health problems. Says resident Ann Smith (not her real name):
“It was so terrible. I wasn’t sleeping so well, I was unwell. It impacted on my mental health, my well-being.”
Of the campaign against the trial she said:
“I had no one to speak to as I had just moved in here from London, until I found the campaign Facebook page… It really was people power. In the last three months it got really big on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, X. Anyway we could to get our voices heard. We badgered the Secretary of State, councillors, MPs. I woke up on Thursday morning to read the government said no and I just burst into tears. It’s my best Christmas present ever.”
NGN’s spokesperson responded to the comment about having no-one to speak to thus:
“Since November 2022 our Hydrogen Hub on the High Street has been opened Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10am to 4pm for residents to speak to our team, raise any questions and discuss any concerns.”
On 6 December, Redcar leader Cllr Alec Brown wrote to Claire Coutinho, secretary of state for energy security and net zero, saying that while he welcomed the jobs and investment a trial would bring, “it would be remiss of me not to highlight the growing concern and opposition to the proposed trial”.
NGN announced that a public meeting would be held on Monday 18 December. But the invitation was only for those living or owning property in the trial area. Experts on hydrogen and the environment would be barred.
Experts and reports
The experts have a lot to say against hydrogen for domestic use. A meta-review released on 14 December of 54 independent studies assessed the scientific evidence for using hydrogen for heating homes. It concluded that the evidence does not support a major role for hydrogen in decarbonised domestic heating.
A consultation report by the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities issued on 14 December laid out its plans for net-zero-ready new homes from 2025. The Future Homes Standard document concluded that new dwellings with hydrogen or fossil fuel boilers could not provide any meaningful carbon savings.
With opposition to hydrogen for domestic use from scientists and consumers, why is the gas industry so set on pushing it through? The answer is that gas companies rely on the domestic gas market to survive. Hydrogen seems to be a justifiable method of continuing to produce gas.
The investigative news and research outlet DeSmog has exposed the gas sector’s attempts to influence public opinion, showing that the industry is the prime mover behind the hydrogen lobby.
Meanwhile, a trial in Fife by gas network SGN using green hydrogen processed with electricity from a nearby windfarm has finally received the go-ahead, later than anticipated due to the shortage of participants. SGN finally attracted the required number by offering £1,000 per household on top of free hydrogen appliances and maintenance with hydrogen bills pegged at the gas price
The Redcar trial was due to take place from 2025. The government is due to decide on hydrogen use in 2026. In its announcement about the Redcar trial cancellation, the government also stated:
“The government believes that low carbon hydrogen may have a role to play in heat decarbonisation, alongside heat pumps and heat networks, in slower time in some locations. The government therefore still plans to take a decision in 2026 on whether, and if so how, hydrogen will contribute to heating decarbonisation.”
Of course, the gas sector could diversify into projects more appropriate for a warming planet: solar energy, wind and water power, domestic heat pumps. But diversifying carries its own risks and shareholders enjoying the dividends of soaring fuel prices might frown on enterprises that shrink their incomes.
So the gas companies are in an existential struggle for long-term survival. As is, on the other hand, life on earth.