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Hydrogen transition laid out in gas industry blueprint

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The UK’s largest gas companies have jointly published a plan for the industry to adapt to remain relevant in a net-zero carbon future. The plan includes a target of one fifth of gas used in UK homes to be hydrogen by 2023.

The Energy Networks Association includes all five of Britain’s gas network companies: Cadent Gas, National Grid Network, Northern Gas Network, SGN, and Wales & West Utilities. Between them, these companies are responsible for owning and operating the infrastructure for delivering gas to 85 per cent of British homes.

Central to the association’s plan (Britain’s Hydrogen Network Plan) is increasing the UK’s hydrogen capacity in line with the government’s 10-point plan for a “green industrial revolution”, published last November. This set a target of generating 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity and developing the first town heated entirely by hydrogen by 2030.

Hydrogen releases only water vapour when it is burned. Transitioning to providing hydrogen could allow gas companies – which will find it harder than electricity companies to decarbonise – to retain a role in the coming decades, especially considering that gas boilers are due to be phased out in new homes from 2025. For instance, the massive gas delivery grid could be utilised to deliver hydrogen to homes.

The companies are aiming to make hydrogen account for 20 per cent of gas pumped into UK homes by 2023. It has set a hydrogen production target of 1GW by 2025 and 5GW by 2030, as set out in the government’s plan. It will carry out modelling into the behaviour of gas networks to ensure that there is sufficient capacity throughout the transition.

The plan also lays out how hydrogen will be delivered to homes safely. The companies will invest £28bn by 2032 in replacing old iron gas mains with “hydrogen-ready” pipes. Projects such as Project Cavendish on Kent’s Isle of Grain will trial the connection of hydrogen production facilities to the existing gas network. The companies will also carry out safety testing on different parts of the gas network, and household gas appliances such as boilers, heaters, and cookers.

A number of projects will trial delivering hydrogen in a way which suits people’s different needs, such as SGN’s H100 Fife project (the first hydrogen-to-homes heating network), and the HyNet Homes project to create a low-carbon cluster in North West England.

“Building the UK’s first hydrogen town is not just about replacing the natural gas that most of our homes rely upon today; it’s about reducing our carbon emissions in a safe and secure way,” said Chris Train of the Energy Networks Association. “It’s about delivering meaningful choice for households, businesses, and communities. And it’s about ensuring the economic benefits of hydrogen are spread around the country, to take advantage of the breadth and scale of that transformation.”

“Britain’s Hydrogen Network Plan sets out how our gas network companies will do all of that in the years ahead.”

Matt Hindle, head of gas at the Energy Networks Association, wrote that the plan is a “major blueprint” for transitioning a large part of the UK energy infrastructure from natural gas to hydrogen. He said that the industry is ready to turn the government’s hydrogen ambitions into a reality, by connecting the existing gas network to hydrogen production sites and through the expansion of hydrogen-ready pipes.

“With 85 per cent of homes connected to it, we have a world-leading gas network here in Great Britain. The good news is, we’ve already installed enough hydrogen-ready pipes to go around the world one and a half times, delivering investment and jobs in communities across the country,” Hindle wrote. “But from making sure we connect hydrogen production sites as quickly as possible to introducing new Gas Safe training, this Plan will underpin the whole range of economic benefits a hydrogen economy can deliver.”

Critics of hydrogen as part of decarbonisation point to the fact that while burning hydrogen does not produce greenhouse gases, most hydrogen is produced using energy from fossil fuels. Making hydrogen production emissions free will either involve highly efficient capture or innovation in electrolysis: an expensive method for producing hydrogen by splitting water molecules.

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