In the 1960s and 1970s, the UK put in enormous efforts to replace the ubiquitous town gas with natural gas supplies. The former, manufactured locally, contained more than 50 percent hydrogen. The proportion dropped to zero once the network was converted and about 40 million appliances were adapted for natural gas, delivered from the country’s North Sea fields. But today, something old could be new again, as one city is planning to switch its pipeline system to pure hydrogen and serve as a model for the rest of the country.
Leeds, the UK’s third-largest city, commissioned a study to determine whether the nationwide pipeline system could be converted in this way. The idea was born with the Iron Mains Replacement Program, implemented in 2002 to substitute polyethylene, which is thought to be well suited for transporting pure hydrogen, for cast iron pipes.
“If we consider the 19th century to have been dominated by town gas, the 20th century by natural gas, what if the 21st century could be dominated by hydrogen?”
Dan Sadler, H21 program director
When creating the study, Dan Sadler and his team aimed for a fully decarbonized energy system to achieve the national target of 80 percent lower carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 compared to 1990. This goal would require electricity, heat and transportation to be based entirely on zero-carbon sources. Up to now, those markets have relied on fossil fuels, such as natural gas and oil, all of which produce carbon dioxide, heat and water. Burning hydrogen would result in heat and water but no carbon. In principle, they said, the network was suitable for delivering hydrogen instead of natural gas. Since both were indeed gases, the pipeline diameter would remain unaffected.
“Power-to-gas technology has the potential to answer some of our key energy storage challenges because of the gas network’s sheer size and flexibility. This study has delivered some compelling results and insight into how a whole systems approach and green hydrogen can facilitate decarbonization across all energy vectors. […] By bringing gas and electric together, there is an extremely valuable opportunity to drive down costs for customers, increase resilience and improve sustainability.”
Mark Horsley, chief executive of Northern Gas Networks
Enough money and office space
In theory, Leeds could offer pure hydrogen while the rest of the UK would see a gradual upgrade. On Oct. 6, 2016, representatives for Northern Gas Networks came to the city to present their ideas about how to convert a large chunk of the country’s pipeline network. One year later, it opened an H21 project office in Leeds to ensure that the ambitious plans are being implemented.
The opening came in the week following the UK’s pledge to support hydrogen-powered home heating. “We are delighted with the government’s announcement of a GBP 25 million program,” Mark Horsley, chief executive of Northern Gas Networks, said. He added that it would provide much of the critical evidence needed to allow for a policy decision on converting the network. “By opening our dedicated project office, we are taking a further step toward our hydrogen future and [are] sending a signal to the government and the rest of the industry that we are ready to work with them to deliver it,” he said.
Last November, the company was awarded GBP 9 million, via the annual Gas Network Innovation Competition, by the UK’s energy regulator Ofgem on behalf of all British gas distributors, which will contribute an additional GBP 1.3 million. The GBP 10.3 million total is said to be used in stage one to fund controlled testing. Stage two field trials will reportedly require another around GBP 5 million, although it is unknown where those funds will come from.
Sadler’s team is now investigating hydrogen behavior in customers’ meters, pipes, stoves and boilers while also attempting to find out whether it makes sense at all to replace the network’s natural gas, or, more specifically, methane with zero-carbon hydrogen. Other objectives are to
Rachel Reeves, UK parliament member for Leeds West, said during a conversation with Sadler, “[Northern Gas Networks’] innovative H21 project shows how the private sector can lead the way in helping reach our 2050 emission reduction targets. It is crucial the government backs business with an industrial strategy that has a plan to create jobs and foster investment across the country at its heart.”
Sadler added, “The H21 project was born in Leeds and based in Leeds, but its scope ultimately involves the entire country. Hydrogen can play a key role in helping the UK meet the challenges of the Climate Change Act: reducing 1990 carbon levels by 80 percent by the year 2050.” He said that a future energy system would need a mix of different technologies, be they gas, electricity or renewables, to achieve that target. H21 had shown that a UK-wide conversion of the network would reduce heat emissions by at least 73 percent and help decarbonize transportation and localized power production.
Integrated research site
To put ideas into practice, Northern Gas Networks has partnered with Northern Powergrid as well as Newcastle University and its National Center for Energy System Integration, primarily funded by the country’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, to build an entirely new kind of installation on 15 hectares, or 37 acres, at the Low Thornley site in Gateshead, north of Leeds. Based on a whole systems approach, InTEGReL, short for Integrated Transport Electricity and Gas Research Laboratory, will allow scientists and engineers to test several energy generation technologies at large scale and in a real-world environment. Hopes are to see breakthroughs in the decarbonization of heat, energy storage and transportation. Construction started last year. Reportedly, a 50-megawatt power-to-gas demonstration system may be added to the facility.