UK engineers outline transition path to hydrogen

The UK’s leading engineering bodies have jointly agreed that it should be possible to safely replace natural gas with hydrogen for domestic and industrial energy use.

“We are now in a position to seriously consider the viability of using hydrogen in the UK’s gas grid for homes and businesses, which could significantly contribute to the decarbonization of the UK’s energy sector,” said Dr Robert Sansom of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

The IET led a study which also included the Health and Safety Laboratory plus the engineering institutions for Chemical Engineers, Mechanical Engineers, and Gas Engineers and Managers. They were tasked by the UK government to assess the engineering risks and uncertainties around using hydrogen in homes, businesses and industry, and they have now published the results of their investigations in a research study.

In the UK, natural gas accounts for 85 per cent of domestic heating and cooking, more than 50 per cent of energy consumed by industry, as well as 40 per cent of Britain’s electricity.

In the new study, ‘Transitioning to hydrogen – Assessing engineering risks and uncertainties’, the engineers stress that “the key feature of hydrogen is that when combusted it produces no carbon emissions and is therefore a low carbon alternative to natural gas”.

Dr Sansom of the IET’s energy policy panel said: “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.”

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

The report highlights that one of the benefits of hydrogen is its ability to be produced in large volumes from natural gas using a process called gas reforming. However, a by-product of this process is carbon dioxide and the study calls for a committed infrastructure plan for carbon capture, utilisation and storage. 

The report points out that while hydrogen can also be produced using electrolysis, at present, this is less suited for producing large volumes of hydrogen and costs are currently higher.

The engineers also highlight that to enable any roll-out of hydrogen, most of the UK’s iron mains gas networks will have to be replaced with hydrogen-safe polyethylene pipes by 2030. 

Existing gas boilers in homes will also need to be replaced – but the report points out that boilers have a working life of 10 to 15 years and therefore, these could be phased in with ‘hydrogen-ready’ boilers at little additional cost to consumers. 

Dr Sansom acknowledged that a switch to hydrogen was 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 relatively short. Action is required now and we hope that our findings and subsequent recommendations can make a significant contribution to advancing the decarbonization of the UK.”

The report ‘Transitioning to hydrogen – Assessing engineering risks and uncertainties’ is available via www.theiet.org/hydrogen
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The role of hydrogen in the European energy mix will be debated in detail at European Utility Week and POWERGEN Europe, which are co-located in Paris in November.

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