On a secluded RAF base five miles north of Hadrian’s wall in Cumbria, three ordinary looking brick terrace houses are at the centre of an experiment that could radically slash emissions from one of the dirtiest parts of the UK economy.
The three specially built uninhabited properties have been fitted with boilers running entirely on hydrogen, rather than the natural gas that heats most UK homes — which are responsible for nearly a fifth of the country’s carbon emissions.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson this week will lay out his plans for a “green industrial revolution”, and has pledged to make a “big bet” on technologies such as hydrogen, which is emerging as an area of global interest as countries adopt targets to halt carbon emissions.
The Cumbrian trial, led by energy consultancy DNV GL, is one of many hydrogen projects under development in the UK as it joins other countries, such as Japan and Germany, in researching whether the gas could remove emissions from some of the most polluting sectors of the economy — including heating, heavy industry and long-distance transport.
“Hydrogen has been with us as an industrial gas that is widely used for 100 years or more. What has changed . . . is a growing realisation that it could play a really important part in decarbonisation,” said Jon Maddy, director of the hydrogen centre at the University of South Wales and a member of the UK government’s hydrogen advisory council.
This has not gone unnoticed by researchers in Cumbria. “Very quickly we discovered an amazing level of interest [in the trial],” said Hari Vamadevan, head of DNV GL’s oil and gas operations in the UK.
Although hydrogen has long been used in industrial processes, such as the manufacture of petroleum products, currently it is largely derived from fossil fuels and is responsible for 830m tonnes of carbon emissions a year globally — equivalent to emissions of the UK and Indonesia combined, according to the International Energy Agency.
Governments and companies now want to produce the fuel without releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — either through the electrolysis of water (known as “green” hydrogen) or by capturing and safely securing carbon emissions when it is produced from natural gas (“blue” hydrogen).
Supporters of this so-called clean hydrogen argue it could provide a neat answer to slashing emissions from areas such as heating and long-distance transport because it may not require behavioural change.
“We’ve done a lot of research . . . that says one of the biggest things customers don’t want is disruption,” said Tim Harwood, who is in charge of hydrogen projects at Northern Gas Networks, which owns local gas grids in north-east England.
“If the government would mandate hydrogen-ready boilers for instance . . . they are easily convertible to hydrogen when the time comes by just simply changing a few small parts and probably half an hour disruption.”
Industries such as chemicals and steel that require high heat currently have few options other than hydrogen to replace fossil fuels, say experts.
“For the chemical industry, it will replace natural gas for making ethanol and ammonia,” said Grete Tveit, who leads low carbon solutions at Equinor, the Norwegian energy group, which plans to supply “blue” hydrogen to a large chemicals park in Hull as part of a wider project to decarbonise industry in the Humber area of north-east England.
Supporters of the fuel — including companies such as Anglo American, Equinor, Orsted and Siemens — want the government to produce a hydrogen strategy setting out particularly how large projects could be funded and industries incentivised to switch from fossil fuels.
“We need to see at least some indication of a business model before we start spending the large money,” said Ms Tveit.
Other countries and regions have already set targets that are giving industry the confidence to invest — for example, the EU in July said it wanted to install at least 40GW of green hydrogen capacity by 2030.
UK ministers have promised to respond “early” next year, while a long-awaited energy white paper, expected before Christmas, will also include plans for hydrogen. “Hydrogen has the potential to be a vital part of the UK’s future net zero energy mix,” said the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
But sceptics argue the properties of hydrogen carry risks. For instance, it carries a fraction of the calorific value of natural gas and has a smaller molecule, so there is a greater risk of leaks.
Richard Lowes, of Exeter university, argues that fossil fuel companies have been “overselling” hydrogen — particularly for heating — because it would allow them to continue using their natural gas infrastructure.
He believes hydrogen is likely to have “niche” uses and would potentially be most useful for decarbonising heavy industry or for storing renewable-produced electricity for longer periods than batteries.
“I think we are totally carried away,” said Mr Lowes. “The trouble is we just don’t know at the moment because it’s never been done and there all of these uncertainties.”
Rather than count on hydrogen for heating, companies such as British Gas have backed the rollout of electric heat pumps in homes, saying it is “not clear when hydrogen will be ready for domestic use”.
Back in Cumbria, those involved in the hydrogen testing project say concerns, such as those of Mr Lowe and others will only be answered through trials.
“There is no way any of us in the gas industry would move forward if it [hydrogen] was going to be more risky,” said Antony Green, hydrogen project director at National Grid.
“I think it’s understanding the differences [with natural gas] and deploying the right mitigations.”