Could clean hydrogen power UK’s zero-emissions future?

Change is in the… flame.
Change is in the… flame.
Image: Reuters/Eric Gaillard
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Thanks to the rapid growth in solar and wind power, the UK is among the few big European countries that has been able to hit its climate goals. But despite the rise of renewables, new reports suggest that the UK will have to consider the use of hydrogen if the country is serious about its zero-emissions future.

The UK broke two records recently—going for three days without burning coal and, for an hour, solar producing more of the country’s power (28%) than natural gas (25%). But, as the temperatures dip in winter, fossil fuels will reign again. That’s because almost all of UK’s residential and office heating is powered by burning natural gas. So one of the biggest challenges is to find a carbon-free alternative to cheap, plentiful, and flexible fossil fuels while continuing to honor its commitments under the Paris climate agreement.

Two gas networks—the companies that operate the country’s vast network of pipes delivering natural gas—are betting that the answer may be hydrogen. Northern Gas Networks (NGN) is looking to completely replace natural gas with hydrogen in the city of Leeds, whereas Cadent is looking to provide up to 20% hydrogen in the gas mix. Both companies are planning to achieve that by converting natural gas into hydrogen and capturing the carbon dioxide produced in the process.

Here’s how it works. Natural gas, which is mostly methane (CH4), is added to a vessel along with high-temperature steam (H2O). The chemical reaction produces hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) in a process called steam-methane reforming. Hydrogen is then ready to be used as a clean fuel, and the captured carbon dioxide is transported to and stored in depleted oil and gas fields under the ocean.

NGN laid out its vision to build a carbon-free heating system for the UK’s third-largest city in a 350-page document (pdf) on the H21 project in 2016. And last week (May 11), Cadent did the same in a 40-page report (pdf) on the HyNet project. The projects are now seeking funding from the UK government and other interested parties: H21 needs £2 billion ($2.8 billion) and HyNet needs £900 million. So far, the government has only announced £20 million in research funding for hydrogen.

Both projects depend on the government ensuring that it gets its policies right on carbon capture and storage (CCS), without which the hydrogen produced will not be a clean fuel. The UK’s history with CCS technology hasn’t been great. Over the last decade, the government spent £168 million to get the technology off the ground but it had nothing to show for it. A 2017 parliamentary report noted that, though the technology is ready, it is the government’s mishandling of its implementation that is to blame. The upshot of the inquiry is that the government is renewing its efforts with CCS as a key part of its newly laid out clean-growth strategy.