Ambitious plans to convert significant parts of the UK gas grid into 100% H2 were outlined by industry leaders last week – but does the theory actually have legs?

Beginning with the city of Leeds and then incrementally spreading throughout the UK, the H21 Leeds City Gate report unveils that switching from a natural gas to a H2 grid could potentially reduce CO2 emissions from UK heat demand by up to 73%.

This could make a significant contribution towards meeting the challenge of the Climate Change Act’s target of an 80% drop by 2050.

The project, costing an initial £2bn ($2.6bn) with an ongoing outlay of £139m ($184,000) each year, would use the H2 produced from four steam methane reformers (SMRs) located at BOC’s site in Teesside.

Producing 305,000 m3 per hour, the SMRs are coupled with a CO2 recovery unit, capturing roughly 90% of CO2 emitted. Estimated to be around 1.5 million tonnes a year, this captured CO2 would then be sequestered under the North Sea via carbon capture and storage (CCS).

But with the earliest practical date for the initial H2 conversion in Leeds estimated to be almost a decade away in 2025, will this plan actually go ahead and what challenges will it face?

gasworld spoke to Mark Crowther, Technical Director at Kiwa Gastec – one of the companies that spearheaded the project’s report – to ascertain whether the initiative is actually feasible and if this has the potential to spark a worldwide rollout of similar environmental projects.

What is Kiwa Gastec’s role in the H21 initiative?

We started off back in 2000 when we secured a contract from the International Energy Agency (IEA) to look at H2 addition to natural gas. Then in Feb 2012, I gave a lecture on opportunities on 100% gas grid which led to the HyHouse project – a project to test the safety of using H2 in homes – devised and run by Kiwa Gastec. That lead onto our involvement in H21 – we knew quite a bit about H2, we knew quite a bit about the possible deployment of H2 and that lead us onto forming a liaison with Northern Gas Networks (NGN).

Why do you think a project like this hasn’t been rolled out before?

I think we are at the stage where if the UK wishes it – it could happen. This has to be a joined up scenario from government, from gas companies, from appliance companies. The UK energy sector has to get behind it.

That’s interesting. I think it’s because people had not appreciated the difficulties surrounding the variation in inter-seasonal energy demand here in the UK and the relative intermittency of renewables. Essentially, we get renewable electricity energy from wind, which is obviously weather dependant, and again we get most of our solar power again at lunchtime in the summer. I think there has been a tendency for the analyses to be carried out in terms of energy requirement over the whole year, and then on that basis electricity looked very attractive. Unfortunately, inter-seasonal storage of electricity is extremely challenging, but one route by which this can be addressed is H2 stored in under-ground caverns.

Of course, what hadn’t been appreciated, and it’s just the way the world develops, was that renewable energy was not guaranteed in times of maximum demand like six o’clock in the evening in January in winter. So this project has been rolled out now because it enables continuing use of the UK’s gas pipes and provides decarbonisation with minimum hassle to consumers. When combined with CCS, it will provide low-cost, low-carbon H2 and in the long-term, it enables the harnessing of peak wind and intermittent renewables such as solar photovoltaics (PV) or tidal.

What challenges will the project come up against?

There are a large number. It’s a proven technology chain but so far that chain has not been tested in a joined up fashion. There are a lot of small pieces of research to carry out, standards to be written, procedures to be thought about and then trialled. It’s just like the conversion from town gas (in the 1960-70s) to natural gas which took place over a 10-year period, including investigations and demonstrations phases. So we will have to go through a similar learning curve all over again.

In terms of challenges, the production of new acceptable H2 appliances is well up there. It’s the production of ascetically and cost-effective H2 appliances, but we are aware of some manufacturers already developing in this area.

How might this impact industrial gas companies?

As H2 becomes more rolled out, there is much more chance of the H2 transmission system becoming open access, so if you want to make H2 there are a whole number of intermediate technologies which could make user energy much more viably. Companies could monetarise their output if they produce a storable medium like H2.

solar panels

From a big picture point of view and the long-term, there is only value in burning low-carbon H2. That low-carbon H2 has either come from the gasification of biomass, or taking the carbon out of natural gas and sequestering the CO2 in the North Sea, or in electrolysis of which the low-carbon H2 could come from wind farms, solar PV, tidal wave or even nuclear power stations.

Do you think other countries will follow suit?

I looked on the internet last night and there were already 50 references to Leeds H21 from places as far as Africa to Australia. So yes, I think it offers a great opportunity for the UK to develop and export its technology for quite a radical, but not too radical, approach.

Is this actually a feasible project? Do you see it going ahead as planned?

We had 200 people at the launch on Monday which had a considerable and enthusiastic buzz about it.

I think we are at the stage where if the UK wishes it – it could happen. There isn’t any one party that can do it – this has to be a joined up scenario from government, from gas companies, from appliance companies. The UK energy sector has to get behind it.