The hydrogen heating test treats us like guinea pigs

Residents of Whitby

Whitby residents Maria (l) and Margaret are concerned about a new energy proposal

“I wake up at night thinking about it,” says Maria Morgan. “We are guinea pigs”.

Maria is at the forefront of the UK’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change.

His Whitby home in Ellesmere Port in northwest England is one of 2,000 homes set to shut down the natural gas supply.

If Whitby’s proposal is approved, pure hydrogen will flow through its pipes by 2025. The advantage of hydrogen is that, unlike natural gas, it does not produce the climate-warming gas CO2 when it is burned.

Homes currently account for around 17% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and as part of efforts to combat climate change, the government aims to phase out natural gas boilers from 2035.

But with 23 million homes currently connected to the gas grid, shifting them to cleaner forms of energy will be a huge task.

To test greener technologies Whitby, together with Redcar in north east England, have been nominated as candidates to convert to hydrogen. One of these will be chosen next year and become the UK’s first ‘hydrogen village’.

But is hydrogen safe? The government and gas companies say it can be, even though hydrogen is more permeable and combustible than natural gas.

Hydrogen stove

The hydrogen stoves would make use of the existing network of natural gas pipes

It’s also unclear how green the village will actually be. Although hydrogen can be produced from water using renewable energy, over 99% of the world’s supply is currently produced from fossil fuels, creating CO2 emissions.

While some Whitby residents welcome the proposal, others feel compelled to take part in a dangerous experiment. Seated next to Maria on the sofa during her BBC visit is her friend Margaret Walsh.

“It’s awful. The stress. I mean, it’s all the talk in my house.”

Stephen Lyth, who lives just around the corner, said he and his wife feel like “lab rats”.

If the process goes ahead, there will be no more natural gas in the Whitby ‘hydrogen village’ area. Residents will have to choose between converting their homes to hydrogen or switching to electricity with a heat pump, with all new appliances provided free of charge.

Both the gas companies and the government say residents worry unnecessarily about safety. They say that although hydrogen is more explosive, additional measures will be in place that will make the risk similar to that of natural gas.

This doesn’t sit well with Professor Tom Baxter, a hydrogen expert at the University of Strathclyde.

“Would you buy a car from a salesman who says, ‘This car will crash more often, but because of the safety features, we’ll be just as safe?” he asks. “You would not.”

In recent months, representatives from British Gas and Cadent have visited homes in the area to repair existing gas appliances free of charge, assess their readiness for hydrogen and address any concerns. If Whitby is selected, residents will receive hydrogen at the same price as natural gas for a two-year trial.

Whitby resident Phil Garnett

Phil Garnett is ready to convert his house to the use of hydrogen

Some Whitby residents, like Phil Garnett, are supportive, excited by the prospect of not only free, new appliances but also doing something they see as good for the environment.

“We are trying to move towards greener and cleaner energy to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere,” he says. “I definitely agree.”

How green is hydrogen?

Hydrogen is definitely cleaner and greener the instant it burns. But how hydrogen is produced is critical given how little is currently being produced using renewable energy.

Using hydrogen made from renewable electricity to heat buildings is also much less efficient than using electricity alone.

Dr Jan Rosenow, energy expert and director of European programs at the Regulatory Assistance Project, told the BBC that heating a house with this ‘green’ hydrogen uses five or six times more electricity (to produce the hydrogen) than to using the same renewable electricity to drive a heat pump.

“When you look at it from sort of a scientific perspective and a consumer perspective, the evidence is pretty clear that it’s not a good idea,” he says.

Rosenow sees the hydrogen trials as part of an attempt by gas suppliers and distributors to maintain their market share as the UK moves away from using natural gas.

Whitby Hydrogen Experience Centre

Marc Clarke of Cadent at the Hydrogen Experience Center in Whitby

Both the Redcar and Whitby projects are currently in the consultation stage. A ‘Hydrogen Experience Centre’ has been set up in Whitby to give residents a taste of what the future may hold.

Three appliances on display. A hydrogen-ready boiler, which you could buy now, and a hydrogen stove and fire that are both still in the prototype stage.

“These are similar substitutes to what people already know,” says Marc Clarke, of the UK’s largest gas distributor Cadent. Cadent and British Gas are the main backers of the Whitby proposal.

“Clients like to cook with gas, they like to heat their homes with gas boilers,” he says.

“Hydrogen uses very similar looking appliances, but it’s just a different gas going through it.”

The questions remain

Kate Grannell, another concerned resident, has set up a Facebook page to help her neighbors get independent advice on hydrogen. You also asked the gas companies directly for information.

“Initially we had about 140 questions,” he says. “A little over eight weeks later we still haven’t had any answers to those questions.”

Questions include: What happens after the two-year probation ends? Will they be returned to natural gas? What if hydrogen was more expensive? How could it affect house prices and could they lose the stake financially?

Resident Kate Grannell

Kate Grannell coordinated responses from residents on a Facebook page

“We’re not being asked if they can use my private house for an experiment,” Ms. Grannell says, with tears in her eyes.

The question of consent is complex. In its instructions to the gas companies, the government has asked that their proposals include evidence of how they have engaged and consulted with residents. Cadent told the BBC he had commissioned independent surveys of residents’ reactions.

But calls by Kate and others for a direct vote on the proposal fell on deaf ears.

“A vote isn’t going to be the real world,” says Mr. Clarke of Cadent. “We will all have to make this choice on some day to switch to a different type of heating technology. This project is bringing this decision to life right now for Whitby, but it will come for all of us in the near future.”

The consultation period is expected to end in March with the government deciding whether Whitby or Redcar will switch to pure hydrogen later in the year.

Whatever gets the green light, it will be difficult for residents to oppose it further. Legislation currently being passed by the UK Parliament would give gas distributors entry powers into homes to enforce relocation away from natural gas.

A government fact sheet says this would only be used as a “last resort” and that those who don’t want hydrogen should choose electric heating instead.

Follow Jonah on Twitter at @jonahfisherbbc

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