Betting the house?

Zero carbon emissions projects are becoming like the buses; except the wait for them all to show up has been around 200 years.

Suddenly, governments around the world, investors and even fossil fuel firms are backing hydrogen energy projects. The UK isn’t missing out, with multiple initiatives that ministers are signing off in a bid to meet its 2050 zero carbon target.

There are huge health and safety issues in changing supplies as well as infrastructure, training and building customer knowledge. The scale is huge: the UK gas infrastructure networks supply 24m customers connected to 284,000km of pipeline.

So how are they doing all this?

The UK’s first homes with household appliances fuelled entirely by hydrogen are set to be built in Low Thornley, Gateshead, providing the public a glimpse into the potential home of the future where no carbon emissions are released.

Two semi-detached homes, funded with the help of the UK government’s Hy4Heat initiative are set to open this spring to showcase how the technology will work. The public, school children, apprentices and universities are all set to visit.Baxi and Worcester Bosch are providing the hardware. The current problem is changing the mix.

The National Grid says: “For many years, we’ve used methane to heat our homes and businesses, and for power stations to generate electricity; currently 85% of homes and 40% of the UK’s electricity relies on gas.”

Wind farms and nuclear power stations are forming the core of electricity generation, backed up by the solar panel market. So that leaves the domestic heat generation.

Energy Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan says: “From running a hot bath and cooking our evening meals to turning on the heating, most of us use natural gas every day. However, to tackle climate change, we need to find alternatives to fossil fuels and move towards making clean energy the norm.”

So who’s making Gateshead happen?

Two of the main UK boiler firms, Baxi – which is part of the Hydrogen Taskforce – and Worcester Bosch are supplying prototypes for the homes.

The Baxi unit has a 28kW modulating thermal output. The Worcester Bosch unit began field trials last autumn. Their 30kw unit can run as a hybrid using methane or hydrogen.

Martyn Bridges, Director of Technical Communication & Product Management, Worcester Bosch tells P&H Engineering: “The Hydrogen House project will help spearhead the safe implementation of hydrogen gas into the gas network and ultimately our homes. The trials underway there are an important step towards a zero carbon future and we’re proud that our hydrogen boiler prototype is playing a pivotal part.” Also onboard is the national grid’s distribution arm, Cadent. Steve Fraser, chief executive says: “These projects are so important to demonstrate a decarbonised energy solution in homes now.”

All that gas

The race to zero carbon actually began in 1671 when Robert Boyle discovered what happens when iron filings react with dilute acids. Five years later, Henry Cavendish defined hydrogen as substance in itself.

Briefly it became a source of fascination: Jules Verne included the idea of hydrogen in The Mysterious Island published in 1776. But the same year, methane was discovered. It burns in the air and is easier to transport making it far cheaper. The invention of the gas turbine in 1791 and the discovery of paraffin oil in 1840 ended the Betamax vs VHS race of its day.

And there are rival projects in today’s race.

Another scheme is keeping the pressure on. The Welsh government, Scottish firm Logan Energy and social enterprise Menter Môn, have begun work to create a hydrogen hub in Holyhead.

It was awarded £4.8m in last year’s Budget and it too will be building zero carbon houses. The location was chosen to explore gas transport and transfer at the port.

So that’s the technical issues: piping, storage and transport.

The big issue

Mass gas production is the last problem: there are three current methods.

Steam methane reformation is the most common process which uses a reformer to react steam with methane and a nickel catalyst to produce the gas. The other process, autothermal reforming, uses carbon dioxide and methane to react. But both keep methane in the mix and carbon dioxide is a by-product. And that’s why big investors, like Jo Bamford of JCB fame, are looking at carbon capture and storage.

BP announced last month it is developing plans for the UK’s largest blue hydrogen production facility, targeting 1GW of hydrogen production by 2030.

A greener alternative is electrolysis, which uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. But that requires a lot of electricity.

Then there’s getting it into the system.

Antony Green, the National Grid’s project director for hydrogen transportation, explains how it will get to Gateshead: “Hydrogen deblending would allow us to start a staged approach to future conversion. This works by feeding a mix of hydrogen and methane through the network, and then deblending the hydrogen to supply areas that are ready to switch with only hydrogen; while continuing to supply other areas with only methane or a specific blend of the two gases.”

The good news is that modern pipelines are up to the job. Among the testing was a study carried out in 2018 in Holland.

Polyethylene with raised crack resistance (PE100-RC) was used. PE pipes are certified in accordance with EN 1555 (PE pipe systems for the transport of natural gas). They are sold as PE100-RC pipes, and are tested in accordance with PAS 1075.

The study investigated PE pipe – a DN90 SDR11 90x8.2mm – which was exposed to hydrogen for 1,000 hours at 2 bar. It passed, and the test also found current repair methods also work.

“The ability to carry out electrofusion on PE pipes after prolonged exposure to hydrogen is therefore an effective measure of the ability to perform repair and maintenance in the future,” the study concludes.

And Project Cavendish, a HyNTS initiative, is testing how to store or import hydrogen at the Isle of Grain in Kent, to get hydrogen to the South of London.

Transportation is also being solved: Kawasaki Heavy Industries launched a liquid hydrogen sea tanker in 2019 for distribution at scale. Cooling the gas at minus 253 degrees Celsius, means it can be compressed to one eight-hundredth of its volume.

What happens next?

All eyes are on the UN summit COP26 in November for the next move. The CIPHE will be pushing the government, institutional investors, regulators and the energy industry to make real commitments to fund the move to hydrogen. Small grants aren’t enough: the Gateshead show homes got just £250,000.

The homes are the customer-facing end of the project. The generation and storage issues are being resolved. That leaves the industry.

The Heat Pump Association has estimated 69,500 trained installers will be needed by 2035 to meet the 2050 deadline. The industry has already started work.

Karen Boswell, the MD at Baxi tells P&H Engineering: “Our customer needs are changing. We operate in residential and commercial markets, so our strategy is around responding to that energy transition. My team will come up with the right solutions for them.”

So where does that leave installers?

Paul Harmer, CIPHE lead technical consultant, says: “The pilots, the funding, the huge sums of money industries are putting in all point to one thing: this is happening. And it’s happening now. So we have to prepare and that means reading up on the best practice, getting specifications from manufacturers and more. We can’t wait.”

In figures

The scale of the gas infrastructure networks in the UK is huge:

  • 85% of homes rely on gas
  • 40% of the UK’s electricity relies on gas
  • 24 million customers are supplied by The gas infrastructure networks
  • 284,000km of pipeline supplies customers

Getting the know-how

Everything you ever wanted to know about hydrogen but were afraid to ask, can be found here:

Every update on the big switch

Why pipes can take the pressure

Hydrogen’s history and why it works

The industry players are all sharing their input from heavy industry to domestic manufacturers:

Kawasaki has developed a digital hub for plant-scale power

Baxi is open-sourcing its work on reaching zero carbon

Worcester Bosch has created an FAQ on domestic boilers

All under one roof

Want to follow the progress on the hydrogen house pilot? Visit:

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