Hydrogen could replace natural gas to heat homes and slash carbon emissions, new report claims

Leading UK engineers have assessed the possibility of using hydrogen in place of natural gas in the UK’s gas grid and concluded that there is no reason why this cannot be achieved safely. This would contribute significantly to the UK’s 2050 carbon emission reduction target and help address the climate emergency.

Natural gas is now one of the largest sources of carbon emissions. 85% of homes in the UK use gas for heating and cooking and more than 50% of energy consumed by industry, alongside 40% of electricity, is also generated from gas. The key feature of hydrogen is that when combusted it produces no carbon emissions and is therefore a low carbon alternative to natural gas.

Detailed in a new, Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) led report, experts from five professional engineering institutions were tasked by government to assess the engineering risks and uncertainties around using hydrogen in homes, businesses and industry as a future low carbon fuel.

Lead author, Dr Robert Sansom of the IET’s energy policy panel, said: “We are now in a position to seriously consider the viability of using hydrogen in the UK’s gas grid for use by homes and businesses which could significantly contribute to the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy sector.

“Hydrogen has not been deployed at scale anywhere in the world and so any proposal will need to compensate for this lack of experience. Our report identifies key risks and uncertainties such as ensuring that we understand the impact on the public from a transition to hydrogen and can minimise any disruption that arises. We know hydrogen produces no carbon emissions when burned but it is also important to fully investigate and understand the overall environmental impact a switch to hydrogen is likely to make.

“It’s fundamental that these areas as well as others identified in the report are comprehensively addressed before a programme of large-scale deployment is considered.”

Comparison of natural gas and low-carbon heating technologies for large-scale retrofit deployment to domestic buildings.

The benefits of hydrogen include its ability to be produced in large volumes from natural gas using a process called gas reforming. A by-product of this process is carbon dioxide and this must be used or safely stored – a process called carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCuS). Hydrogen can also be produced using electrolysis but at present this is less suited for producing large volumes of hydrogen and costs are currently higher.

In addition, most of the UK’s iron mains gas networks will have been replaced with hydrogen-safe polyethylene pipes by 2030. Existing gas boilers in homes will need to be replaced but boilers have a working life of 10 to 15 years and so these could be phased in with “hydrogen-ready” boilers at little additional cost to consumers.

The report identifies five key recommendations which need to be investigated but also acknowledges that good progress is already being made.

The UK must:

  • commit to a CCuS infrastructure which is essential to the bulk production of hydrogen
  • trial new technologies to ensure robust cost and performance data
  • prepare a detailed transition programme so that problems can be identified, and solutions found
  • identify and mobilise the skills and resources required
    provide a stable and assured funding regime.

Dr Sansom concluded: “It is ambitious. To make a significant contribution to meeting the UK’s 2050 carbon reduction target the transition to hydrogen would need to be implemented over the next 30 years. This may seem a long time but in terms of the infrastructure required and millions of homes and businesses affected it is a relatively short. Action is required now and we hope that our findings and subsequent recommendations can make a significant contribution to advancing the decarbonisation of the UK.”

‘Transitioning to hydrogen – Assessing engineering risks and uncertainties’ is available via www.theiet.org/hydrogen

It has been produced by a professional engineering working group consisting of: The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) and the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers (IGEM).