Hydrogen: Journey to Net Zero

Our support of the UK’s first official Hydrogen Week continues this week, bringing together stakeholders across the UK to celebrate and promote the role of hydrogen in reaching net zero (NZ). Michael Bennett, construction legal director at Shoosmiths, explores the topic of hydrogen and its current journey to achieving net zero.

The number that has been front and centre of every environmental conference is 1.5C. In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed that keeping global warming figures above pre-industrial averages and below 1.5C was possible, but only with significant, far-reaching and rapid changes to all aspects of society. Key amongst those changes was the reduction of CO2 emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, with net zero being achieved by 2050.

The UK has made good progress in its goal of reaching net zero. In its 2022 update, the Climate Change Commission (CCC) confirmed that it had achieved a reduction of between 45 and 50 percent against 1990 levels (which were significantly higher than 2010 levels). However, anyone merely glancing at this headline figure will miss a key point – so far, the UK has tackled the easiest CO2 reductions. A significant part of the improvements was achieved by decommissioning coal and gas power stations, alongside a significant increase in renewable energy production. In fact, CO2 emissions from electricity supply are now less than a third of 2010 levels.  

In the same time period, CO2 emissions from buildings has fallen less than 20 percent, with manufacturing and construction also less than 50 percent. While clearly not a panacea that will cure all of these emissions, hydrogen can and should, play an important role in reducing CO2 emissions by replacing natural gas both for heating homes and industrial processes.

British industry has already started preparing for the change. Last year British Steel launched a study to consider the use of green hydrogen to power its blast furnaces. This now has significant government backing, with the announcement in January of £600m in grants (half each to Tata Steel UK and British Steel) to assist in the changeover. Even oil refineries are getting on the hydrogen bandwagon. In August 2022, Essar Oil installed the first hydrogen powered furnace anywhere in the UK at its Stanlow site. Once commissioned it will replace three existing furnaces at the site.

In the residential sector, there is already a timeline for the rollout of hydrogen. All new boilers will soon be hydrogen ready (meaning that they can easily be converted to run on pure hydrogen). Then, sometime in 2028 or shortly thereafter, the gas network will start to supply a blend of 80 percent natural gas with 20 percent hydrogen.  

Eventually the network will be switched over to 100 percent hydrogen. While there is no definitive timeline for this currently, it is anticipated that this will be in the mid-2040’s. There is, however, a good reason for this long lead in. At present the gas network is not ready to accept 100 percent hydrogen.  

As NASA demonstrated recently when preparing its Space LaunchSystem (SLS) for launch, hydrogen is very difficult to keep in a system. It will find even the tiniest hole, crack or misaligned seal to slip through. Worse still, current safety measures, such as adding strong scents to the system, will not be effective. Hydrogen molecules are significantly smaller than the scent molecules, so the hydrogen will be able to escape through smaller holes. Add all this to the fact that hydrogen is extremely combustible, far more so than natural gas, the danger become obvious. It goes without saying that our ageing gas network will need a significant upgrade to safely deliver hydrogen around the country.

Efforts to develop the necessary changes to the gas network are already underway. All five of the UK’s gas grid companies have confirmed that they will be ready for 20 percent hydrogen this year and several projects are already underway to assess the impact of 100 percent hydrogen, including H21 (led by Northern Gas Networks in partnership with Cadent, SGN and Wales & West Utilities amongst others) and Future Grid (currently in construction by National Grid). These projects will provide the blueprint for our future grid.

Hydrogen will be a critical part of our route to net zero. It will, over the next few years and decades, become an everyday part of life. While it is critical that we get the infrastructure right from the outset, its potential for improving our environment is immeasurable. However, hydrogen is only as environmentally friendly as the method used to produce it. Look out later in the week for our piece on hydrogen production.


This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.


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