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1 August 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:07am

Gas – a vital, sustainable fuel of the future

The UK’s existing gas infrastructure will heat the homes of tomorrow, says Andy Irwin, head of innovation and energy futures at Northern Gas Networks.

By Andy Irwin

With the debate about the future of energy gathering pace, as the targets of the Climate Change Act loom and the need for affordable and reliable energy supplies rises, UK energy is at a pivotal moment.

The UK is committed to reducing its carbon emissions by at least 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050. The energy industry has a significant role to play, both by improving day-to-day environmental performance and by paving the way for sustainable power.

Gas provides about 62 per cent of the UK’s domestic energy, with 45 per cent of that used for heating. During peak demand, gas networks carry four times as much energy as the electricity grid.

Decarbonising heat is perhaps the biggest challenge the UK faces in order to meet climate-change targets. Not only does energy need to be sustainable, it must be affordable, reliable and secure.

Gas is a cost-effective and efficient fuel, costing roughly a third as much as electricity to produce. Sustainable fuels such as hydrogen and biogas can supply both heat and transport and would support growing populations, reduce the environmental impact and help avoid over-reliance on supplies from overseas.

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Crucially the existing pipe network, which has had billions in investment over the past 15 years, can be adapted to transport these alternative fuels. According to the Energy Networks Association (ENA), decarbonising the gas distribution network would cost a fraction of converting to an all-electric grid for all of our energy needs.

As the UK transitions to a low-carbon economy, there are numerous scenarios that could play a part in the future UK energy mix. Although there is no silver bullet for decarbonising heat, gas has a vital role to play in addressing the economic and environmental challenges of the energy trilemma.

There is no denying that changing how heat is delivered will be a huge challenge, requiring collaboration between energy influencers, industry, academia and government. Only by bringing organisations with complementary objectives together and sharing learning will we be able to realise the potential of energy innovation, drive investment and meet the challenges of affordability, sustainability and energy security.

Green hydrogen could heat the homes and businesses of the future

Ambitious plans that demonstrate the UK gas grid’s potential to be converted to carry hydrogen have been shared with industry, government and privatesector organisations this month.

Launched by the north of England’s gas distributor, Northern Gas Networks (NGN), with Wales & West Utilities, Kiwa Gastec and Amec Foster Wheeler, the new H21 Leeds City Gate report calls for the gas grid to be converted to hydrogen, starting with Leeds and then incrementally across the country.

The report finds that converting the UK gas grid to hydrogen will be a big step towards meeting the UK’s carbon-reduction targets. At present, over 30 per cent of all UK carbon emissions come from domestic heating and cooking. A UK-wide conversion to hydrogen gas could reduce heat emissions by a minimum of 73 per cent, and would also support decarbonisation of transport and localised generation of electricity.

A nationwide conversion to a hydrogen gas grid is technically possible and economically viable, and will be a significant contributor to meeting the UK’s decarbonisation targets,” says Dan Sadler, H21 project lead at Northern Gas Networks. “This is a major opportunity for our country to become a world leader in hydrogen technology and decarbonisation, and would create thousands of new jobs across the UK.”

The report says that a hydrogen gas grid could use the existing underground gas pipes already installed in the UK, and that household appliances could be converted to run on hydrogen with far less disruption and expense than would be involved in using alternative energy sources.

Dan Sadler continues: “Households won’t be required to buy new appliances. The conversion process will be similar to that carried out in the 1960s and 1970s, when 40 million appliances across 14 million households were converted from town gas to natural gas. We’d have special teams, working street by street to make the conversion as smooth as possible for customers, with minimal impact in homes and on highways.”

The report has been welcomed by the chief scientific adviser of the Department for Energy and Climate Change, John Loughhead OBE, who commented: “Meeting the demands of the Climate Change Act is a huge technical and business challenge.

The H21 Leeds City Gate project has usefully explored one possible contribution.” The H21 would be funded through regulatory business plans that would allow costs to be paid back over time. Coupled with energy efficiency measures, it would create a minimal impact on household energy bills. It is the same methodology as that adopted for the original town-gas-to-naturalgas conversion in the 1960s and 1970s.

This would be made possible by starting the hydrogen conversion programme to coincide with the end of the iron mains replacement programme, which has been in place in the UK gas industry since 2000. Funding would be redirected and invested in converting the gas network to hydrogen, leading to minimal cost impact for customers. It is proposed that the conversion in Leeds take place as early as 2026-29, followed by a rollout across the UK that can be implemented as needed.

Leeds, as the third-largest city in the UK, has been identified as the most suitable area to start conversion to a hydrogen grid because of its significant energy demand and its geographical location. It has also attracted crucial interest from local authorities and businesses including Leeds City Council, as well as the Leeds City Region and Tees Valley Unlimited local enterprise partnerships.

The UK will continue to use gas from the North Sea and mainland Europe, as well as wider worldwide liquid natural gas imports. Instead of burning this gas, which is predominantly methane, and releasing carbon into the atmosphere, the project will remove the carbon and store it in appropriate geological storage locations under the North Sea. The hydrogen element of natural gas, which emits no carbon dioxide when burned, will then be used for heating and cooking in homes and businesses.

The H21 project predicts that a hydrogen gas network could become an anchor for further innovations in the sector, and in other industries such as transport and electricity generation. The 19th century ran on town gas, the 20th century on natural gas; could this century be powered by hydrogen?

It’s not about one energy source winning or losing: it’s about meeting the challenges presented by the Climate Change Act. The more options we have in play, the greater our ability to meet that challenge.

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