The biggest market for hydrogen as a clean fuel may not be cars—but homes

Except hydrogen burns with an orange flame.
Except hydrogen burns with an orange flame.
Image: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
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As in other countries, many people in the UK heat their homes with natural gas, which burns cleaner than oil or coal and thus has been the go-to fuel. In recent years, it has accounted for more than 80% of all the energy consumed on a winter day in Britain, for heat, electricity, and transportation.

Nonetheless, even cleaner fuels are needed to meet the UK’s goals of cutting carbon-dioxide emissions under the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act. Cadent, a British gas distribution company that owns the country’s biggest network, has proposed spending £600 million ($800 million) to test providing hydrogen instead of natural gas, or methane. Hydrogen seems to have all the advantages of natural gas with none of its downsides. It can be transported through the same pipes as natural gas, it is believed to be just as safe, and when it burns, it produces only water.

The company plans to first switch industrial users from natural gas to hydrogen in the area surrounding Liverpool and Manchester. In the next step, following safety tests, it will introduce hydrogen into the natural gas being delivered to homes. The report detailing the proposal is due to be published by Cadent on Aug. 9, according to a company spokesperson.

Hydrogen is usually made through a process called steam-methane reforming which puts natural gas, or methane (CH4), under pressure with steam to produce hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and a small amount of carbon dioxide. The carbon monoxide produced is then put through a second process with high-pressured steam to produce yet additional hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

Cadent is proposing to use the same process to make hydrogen and then capture and put the carbon dioxide safely away into depleted gas fields in the Irish Sea. This way hydrogen can be produced without adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, helping the UK meet its ambitious goals to cut emissions.

Another way to produce hydrogen is to use excess electricity, such as from wind turbines or solar cells which may not be usable at the time of generation, and then use it to split water into its components: hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen can be sold commercially (or put out into the atmosphere), and the hydrogen can be used as a fuel. An Australian A$5 million ($4 million) trial just got a go ahead in Adelaide to use this method of producing hydrogen and then injecting it in the gas grid up to 10% of the total natural gas.  The blend supplied to homes, businesses, and industry would produce fewer emissions than natural gas alone.

Cadent’s plan comes a year after a similar proposal from Northern Gas Networks (NGN). NGN’s £2-billion proposal includes converting all domestic users in the city of Leeds to hydrogen instead of natural gas. The captured carbon dioxide from the hydrogen production process will be pumped into depleted gas fields in the North Sea. The NGN plan will sequester about 1.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Cadent says it’s too early to provide similar estimates for its proposal.

The extra cost in the NGN plan (£2 billion vs. £600 million) includes replacing people’s appliances with new ones that burn hydrogen (some already exist but more will likely crop up with demand) and constructing hydrogen storage facilities to cater to seasonal demands for heat. NGN expects energy bills to go up, but not by much. Cadent wouldn’t comment.

“Both projects are going in the right direction,” says Alastair Rennie, an independent consultant for NGN’s Leeds project. As regulated companies, both gas networks are making plans to find alternatives like hydrogen in order to help the government meet its CO2 emission goals. Without achieving significant emissions reduction, gas distribution networks are likely to be decommissioned by 2050.

More importantly, these projects could finally deliver on the big promise of hydrogen as a fuel source. Apart from makers of cars and forklifts, hydrogen has largely remained of interest to research labs and small companies. If UK and Australian homes and businesses start heating with hydrogen, the countries will create the biggest market for the fuel. And, then, perhaps other countries will look to hydrogen as well.