In the remote hills of Cumbria, a few miles north of Hadrian’s Wall, three nondescript townhouses stand side by side, quietly offering a glimpse of a low-carbon future.
The houses are intentionally mundane in all but one respect: they are the first in the UK to run on a clean-burning hydrogen blend as part of the world’s most sophisticated hydrogen test facility. Welcome to Hystreet.
Engineers at the five-hectare site are testing whether hydrogen can safely replace fossil gas pumped through transmission lines and local distribution networks to UK homes as part of the government’s efforts to meet climate targets.
“Ninety-nine percent of people don’t ask where their gas comes from or how it gets there,” says Antony Green, National Grid’s hydrogen czar and head of the FutureGrid project. Its task is to create a realistic replica of the British gas system to test whether the same pipelines that have carried North Sea gas to homes since the 1970s could carry low carbon hydrogen in the future.
UK home heating accounts for 15% of the country’s total emissions, which means that a low-carbon alternative will be crucial to reducing emissions to net zero by 2050. But the test site is also essential for understand how hydrogen can be transported to large factories and clusters to help tackle emissions from polluting factories and power stations.
“The evidence we’ve gathered over the past few years shows that we can do it,” says Green, walking along a giant gas pipe. “It’s great to do the paperwork. But we still have to prove it.
Green is briefly interrupted by a short alarm followed by a deep boom as a controlled explosion takes place only a mile or two away. The hydrogen test site is located in the heart of the country’s largest Royal Air Force base, where occasional explosions are to be expected. There won’t be any at the hydrogen test site, he assures me. Still, its location is a reasonable precaution given the challenge ahead.
Using the UK’s existing gas infrastructure to transport hydrogen is no easy task. It’s more combustible than the traditional methane-rich gas we’ve learned to use safely in our homes, and its smaller molecules mean it’s three times more likely to leak from pipelines or in homes than fossil gas. . On the positive side, hydrogen is also lighter, which means it’s more likely to dissipate than to build up and create a combustion threat.
A hydrogen future requires careful safety assessments, but also large amounts of fuel. Low carbon hydrogen can be made in two ways: blue hydrogen can be extracted from fossil gas using carbon capture technology to trap the climate emissions that are released; green hydrogen can be made by dividing water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable electricity.
Although blue hydrogen is widely regarded as “low carbon,” it has failed to win favor with climate activists. Despite the use of carbon capture technology to trap process emissions, around 10 to 15% of CO2 in the fossil gas would end up in the atmosphere. It would also require continued offshore gas production, which has a significant carbon footprint.
Many would prefer to focus on green hydrogen, although questions remain as to how soon it could play a significant role in reducing emissions and whether there would be enough renewable energy to fuel a boom in the world. hydrogen as well as the electrification of homes and transport.
At the “beach to boiler” test facility in Cumbria, Green uses pieces of disused pipeline and valves to create a closed-loop system. The pipes range from the giant type of gas import found on the coast and across the country, to the smaller networks of pipelines that crisscross local neighborhoods, spanning a total of about a mile before reaching homes. carefully constructed test drive from Hystreet.
Engineers test a gas mixture with 2% hydrogen before producing up to 20% hydrogen, then circulating pure hydrogen through the pipes to assess their safety. “We regularly get calls from all over the world asking what we are doing here and how we are doing it,” Green adds.
On Hystreet, each two-story house uses a slightly different layout and type of construction to represent typical UK residences. They are allowed to slowly fill with hydrogen while interior sensors monitor gas levels. When the safety limit is reached, automatic door and window hinges open to allow gas to escape. “No explosions on our part, though,” Green jokes.
Inside, the household appliances seem reassuring: a seemingly standard gas hob, an ordinary boiler.
Like natural gas, hydrogen is odorless, so it would have the same distinctive smell added to help people notice a leak quickly. When it is burning, it is difficult to see in daylight, so the hob has a setting that produces a visible flame, similar to that of a traditional gas hob but more in color. Red.
“I think people are expecting something more or something different,” says Green, as we look into the boiler cupboard. “But that’s the point, really. Running your home on hydrogen shouldn’t be any different from natural gas.
Yet there are many who would prefer that homes not run on hydrogen at all. For skeptics, the challenge of overhauling the UK’s 4,000 miles of underground gas pipelines is too costly a step when the heating and cooking could instead run on a low-carbon power system.
The opposing factions in the debate follow predictable industrial lines. National Grid and other companies that operate traditional gas generation or infrastructure projects tend to favor home hydrogen to extend the life of existing assets. Energy companies that invest in low carbon power generation tend to support electric heat pumps as the future of low carbon homes.
The government last week gave the green light to grants worth £ 5,000 to help homes switch to heat pumps, and said hydrogen testing should continue before a decision on domestic hydrogen will not be taken in 2026.
Keith Anderson, Managing Director of Scottish Power, a major investor in renewable energy and a home energy provider, said: “It will never happen. It is a non-starter. The cost of reengineering all the infrastructure, reengineering all the boilers, and the inefficiency of turning hydrogen from a renewable source into a heating product for a domestic home just won’t work.
His company is still enthusiastic about green hydrogen, but aims far from home. “We’re going to continue to focus on hydrogen for transportation, which is too difficult to electrify, and for industrial processes because we believe that’s where the biggest difference can be made,” Anderson said.
Whatever the future of the UK’s hydrogen ambitions, the lessons learned in Cumbria will play a crucial role in achieving them.