UK Pilot Project Mixes 'Green' Hydrogen With Natural Gas

ITM power storage

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There is so much hype about hydrogen these days, particularly in the UK right now, where a third of carbon emissions comes from heating and cooking with gas. A pilot project at Keele University, near Stoke-on-Trent, is pumping out a mix of 80 percent natural gas and 20 percent hydrogen made by electrolysis in a shipping container sized unit from ITM, who writes:

Heating for domestic properties and industry accounts for half of the UK’s energy consumption and one third of its carbon emissions, with 83% of homes using gas to keep warm. The 20% volume blend means that customers can continue to use their gas supply as normal, without any changes being needed to gas appliances or pipework, while still cutting carbon emissions. If a 20% hydrogen blend was rolled out across the country it could save around 6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year, the equivalent of taking 2.5 million cars off the road.

Unsurprisingly, this is being promoted by a gas company, Cadent. All the gas companies love hydrogen because they still will have something to put in their pipes in a decarbonizing world. But there are different colours and flavours of hydrogen:
Brown hydrogen is made from coal; this is what used to be called town gas before natural gas took over. It has a very high carbon footprint and is not too common anymore.

Grey hydrogen is made from the steam reformation of methane, which separates the hydrogen from the carbon; one molecule of CH4 reacts with H20 to form 4H2 and 1 CO2, plus whatever CO2 is made generating the 1000 degree steam. This is how ~98 percent of the hydrogen is being made right now.

Blue Hydrogen is what the oil and gas companies will be trying to sell us on, where they take the CO2 from the Grey Hydrogen process and store it somewhere, or use it in synthetic fuels or other products.

Green Hydrogen is the holy grail, where it is made by electrolysis using renewable electricity. Solar and wind power doesn't always happen when you need it most, so using surplus renewables to make green hydrogen does make some sense. It's the argument being used to run hydrogen trains and cars.

Hydrogen Generation

© Committee on Climate Change Technical report

In the UK they love the idea of green and blue hydrogen because they have so many crappy houses that are heated with the regular methane or natural gas. The UK Committee on Climate Change recommended this as part of their net zero by 2050 plan. I wrote at the time:

When all else fails, the report's favourite answer is hydrogen – for industry, heavy vehicles, and "heating on the coldest days", which is dumb because they then have to maintain the whole gas piping network and the boilers. When you dig into the technical report, they propose that by 2050 there will be 29 gigawatts of hydrogen power from "advanced methane reformation", i.e. natural gas, combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS), along with up to 19 GW made through electrolysis. This is a fantasy; the volume of carbon to be stored is huge, the entire distribution network would have to be replaced, so they will basically keep pumping natural gas. This is why we have to electrify everything instead of pretending we can switch to magical carbon-free hydrogen.

In fact, about half the pipes in the UK have been replaced with hydrogen-safe plastic. But they would still have to replace all the furnaces and water heaters and much of the piping in cities, making it still a huge deal. That's why the BBC report ends with a bit of realism in its coverage:

Richard Black from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) told BBC News: “We will and should have hydrogen in the mix of energy options, but it’s not a wonder solution to everything, which you sometimes get the impression from the rhetoric. There is hope – but too much hype.”
leaking methane from sources image

The Conversation/CC BY-ND 1.0

Years ago I thought that the hydrogen economy was a shill for the nuclear industry, which was going to sell the electricity needed to make it. Now it is a shill for the oil and gas industry, which wants to keep fracking the stuff. But as we noted earlier, the U.S. oil and gas industry is leaking 13 million metric tons of methane each year — that's before it even gets to the refinery where the steam reformation happens. So much is lost even before it gets turned into blue gas.

Cities and even entire nations are now looking at actually banning natural gas; the New York Times recently covered the debate in Bellingham, Washington. As one city councillor told the Times, “This is about going to where we didn’t go before. We’ve grabbed the less controversial and low-hanging fruit. This fruit is higher on the tree.”

This is something we all have to do, and will be fighting the gas and oil companies all the way; they have lots of gas to sell, whether you want grey, blue or a teeny bit of green.