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  1. Spotlight on Policy
27 September 2022

The future of gas

Could hydrogen be the key to achieving net zero?

By Richard Walsh

The UK has a target to be net zero by 2050. That means reducing harmful CO2 emissions by 100 per cent. We have to find new ways – greener ways – to do these things.

In 2019, the UK emitted 351.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the use of fossil fuels, accounting for 81 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions. The way we heat our homes, run our vehicles and power our industries have all contributed to climate change. We’re looking for solutions that balance environmental targets with customer needs.

In order to supply the increasing energy demands of the UK, we will need a combination of approaches. Renewable electricity from wind and solar can do a lot, but to reach net zero we believe that we will need hydrogen, alongside better-insulated homes and smarter use of energy.

Over one third of CO2 emissions come from heating our homes and offices, so decarbonising heat is a major issue for the UK to address. We are working on ways to achieve this and believe that the best way to keep customers warm, while enjoying the flexibility of gas with minimum disruption, is to use the existing network to deliver greener gases like biomethane and hydrogen.

For those who remember school science lessons, you’ll know hydrogen as the first element on the periodic table. Hydrogen itself is never found on its own, but rather as part of more complex molecules, such as water. It has to be made either through electrolysis or through reforming methane, and both methods can be used in a way that keeps carbon emissions low.

There are different ways of producing low-carbon hydrogen, generally involving splitting hydrogen atoms out of other things. The two primary ways are by splitting the H2 from the O in water by running electricity through it – known as green hydrogen. If that electricity is from renewables such as wind and solar then we can say that the hydrogen is carbon-free. 

The other way is to split the H from the C in methane by heating it with steam – known as blue hydrogen. Of course, the C in methane stands for carbon, something which needs to be safely captured and stored, otherwise it adds to emissions. Those carbon capture and storage processes are not perfect today, but they are very good. 

The technologies used to produce green and blue hydrogen are very different and have very different costs. Today, blue hydrogen is the cheapest, but that will change, with analysts forecasting green will be cheaper by the end of the decade, as renewable electricity is expected to continue to fall in cost, and the technology that underpins the whole process – electrolysers – is improving. In fact, using a hydrogen fuel cell in an electric vehicle is two to three times more efficient than using a combustion engine.

The project we’re part of in the north-west, known as HyNet, uses this blue technology and will capture 97 per cent of all the carbon. That will mean the hydrogen it produces will have just 4 per cent of carbon that methane does today once you account for efficiency losses – this is less than the proposed low carbon standard for hydrogen.

Cadent supports the UK’s 2050 net zero target and believes it is important that consumers have confidence in how low-carbon future hydrogen production is. Rather than judging hydrogen on its colour descriptor, we believe that it is more important to set a scientifically-led low carbon standard, backed by a certification scheme, that assures consumers of its low carbon content – just as the government is proposing. 

We believe that hydrogen is among the easier options for many customers, providing a like-for-like and cleaner replacement for the natural gas they use today. Low-carbon hydrogen can also replace natural gas in high-temperature industrial processes such as glass, ceramics and steel manufacturing, protecting jobs and growth in the UK.

It is equally well-suited to play a role in decarbonising the heat and hot water of the 22 million homes and businesses currently connected to the gas grid, alongside other technologies such as heat pumps. Hydrogen boilers work just like the fossil gas boilers we are all used to and have comparable upfront costs. Hydrogen could therefore be a solution for consumers who either cannot afford the upfront costs of a heat pump, or whose homes may need costly retrofits to increase the size of radiators, install larger pipework or find space for a new hot water cylinder for a heat pump to work effectively.

Hydrogen could also help ensure resilience in the coming winter, as opposed to a system that meets winter heating demand exclusively with heat pumps, in an electricity sector necessarily dominated by intermittent renewables. That would require prohibitively expensive system upgrades to ensure heat was there even when the wind was not blowing or the sun not shining.

Most pressingly, hydrogen can be produced at scale right here in the UK, meaning our energy market will be more independent and less reactive to international events and markets, providing more certainty for consumers. 

Cadent will be at Labour Party conference discussing this topic with key stakeholders, on Tuesday 27 September at 11am, at an event entitled “Future heat for everybody: What is the role of hydrogen in decarbonising our energy system?”, located at ACC Liverpool, Hall 2, Room 1. We’d be delighted for you to join us.