BLOG: How hydrogen is the answer to ‘building greener’

Jenny Moten, Network Director, North West at Cadent talks about how hydrogen is the answer to ‘building greener’.

When Boris Johnson said ‘building greener’ would be at the heart of the UK economic recovery from Covid-19, it was music to my ears.

You might think that strange, coming from a company that currently carries mostly fossil gas through our 21,000 miles of pipes in North West England.

It’s because here in the North West we’re ready to play our part, ready to lead, ready to enable carbon neutral gas to replace those fossil fuels.

Our region which started the industrial revolution centuries ago is ready to do it again – bringing hydrogen into our homes, offices and businesses.

In its early stages, it will be blended (at up to 20 per cent volume) with the methane we distribute today. This needs no changes to pipes or appliances. Longer term, we’d phase out the fossil gases. As you would now, every 15 years or so, when your boiler packs in or needs updating, you’d install a new one ready to operate at 100% hydrogen.

This isn’t a pipe dream (excuse the pun); it’s reality. Right now we’re using that same hydrogen blend at Keele’s university campus, proving the safety case to the regulators. All is working fine. No-one’s noticing any difference – same pipes, same boilers, same hobs, just an overnight big reduction in the amount of carbon that’s being produced.

From that small acorn we’re also well on the way to growing the tree – right here in North West England. Cadent is part of a major project called HyNet North West that will massively upscale for distribution to over two million NW homes by the mid 2020s. Meanwhile, manufacturers such as Baxi in Lancashire are busy making 100% hydrogen boilers.

What amazing and timely opportunity then – for tens of thousands of skilled jobs, for huge reductions in carbon emissions, for a solution to two of the problem areas that dominate discussion when you talk climate change: how to decarbonise heat and transport.

Because this isn’t just about how we heat our homes. It’s also about how we decarbonise industrial processes that are heat intensive. Industries that drive the NW economy – glass manufacture, food production, brick making and many, many others. Without gas in huge volumes, they can’t do what they do. Hydrogen is the answer, it’s as simple as that.

And while electric cars are rightly being championed as a solution to how we get from A to B, for heavier vehicles – like trains, HGVs and buses – hydrogen is part of the solution too. Widnes-based train manufacturer Alstom is all set to build hydrogen trains, Liverpool City Council will soon take delivery of hydrogen buses, bin lorries in Cheshire are going to run on hydrogen. The North West leading the way again, leading the green recovery.

Here’s something else that may surprise you – we don’t think gas has all the answers. This isn’t an ‘either/or’ argument for gas and electricity. Some solutions to reaching net zero will come from renewable, sustainable electricity. Others will come from hydrogen.

Turning that into tangible action, we are working very closely with Electricity North West right now to support Greater Manchester Combined Authority in its achievable ambition to be carbon neutral by 2038, a full 12 years earlier than the rest of UK. More on that soon.

There is no realistic scenario which allows the UK to hit net zero by 2050 without hydrogen playing a key role. That’s a fact recently supported by the Committee on Climate Change.

I manage a team of over 900 people here in North West England, working from depots from Kendal to Crewe. Day and night, 365 days a year, they’re ensuring the safe flow of gas that helps to heat more than 83 per cent of the region’s homes. Four in every five homes.

It’s an extraordinary accomplishment from a gas network that’s been around for more than 200 years. Adapting through time, including the last big switch from ‘town gas’ (which was mostly made up of hydrogen, by the way) to North Sea gas (methane) in the 60s and 70s.

We’re building on the strengths of a proven system. We’ve got exciting times ahead.

‘Build greener’ you say Boris? Got it. Just say the word, we’re ready here in the North West.