Communities question hydrogen hype

The UK government’s climate-trashing plans to use hydrogen for home heating are starting to come up against resistance by communities.

Residents of Whitby on Merseyside – one of two sites the government is considering making an experimental “hydrogen village” – protested last week about the tide of greenwash from Cadent Gas in support of the plan.

Whitby residents’ protest last week. All photos from HyNOT twitter feed

The villagers demonstrated in the freezing cold at Cadent’s Hydrogen Experience Centre, against the proposal to turn their homes over to hydrogen heating without proper consultation.

Louise Gittins, leader of Cheshire West and Chester council, told the crowd: “I don’t want anyone forced into doing this. I’ll take what you’ve said on board.”

Cadent, which owns the local gas distribution network, plans to convert 2000 Whitby households to hydrogen for heating – despite opposition to such uses by engineers and energy researchers. They say that fitting electric heat pumps, and retrofitting insulation, is more energy-efficient, and contributes far more effectively and rapidly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The government supports hydrogen for home heating – in line with energy companies’ wishes, and against the advice of engineers and scientists in numerous reports. It will decide next year which residents to use as guinea pigs for its “hydrogen village” experiment; its two options are in Whitby and Redcar, north Yorkshire.

The government has also funded studies for Northern Gas Networks’ H21 project, which would convert more than 15 million homes from gas to hydrogen. And just this week it has launched a consultation about offering “hydrogen-ready” boilers to homes – which would damage more effective, electricity-based routes to decarbonisation.

The Whitby residents, distrustful of one-sided information from Cadent, organised a virtual public meeting with researchers Jan Rosenow, Tom Baxter and Paul Martin of the Hydrogen Science Coalition. It’s well worth watching.

The Whitby protest was also supported by the HyNOT campaign group, set up to challenge HyNET, a government-backed array of industrial projects in the north west.

HyNET centres on plans to capture and store carbon from the Stanlow oil refinery – relying on the oil industry’s problematic carbon capture and storage technology, in which politicians are putting vastly inflated hopes.

Campaigners argue that the project is a survival strategy for oil and gas companies.

Catherine Watson Green of HyNOT said the group was formed by climate activists in the North West and North Wales, “to question the whole ethos of hydrogen, made from gas, as an answer to climate problems. Hydrogen is being used as an excuse to carry on business-as-usual, for the gas industry to carry on.

“We are against hydrogen being used for processes where it is unsuitable and wasteful. The fact that HyNET are even considering using hydrogen in homes – which is so clearly wasteful of energy – just shows that we have a point.”

Unease about the government’s and energy companies’ intentions is not limited to Merseyside.

In Fife, Scotland, the gas network company SGN had this month failed to get 300 households to sign up to participate in a hydrogen heating experiment – despite offering them £1000 each to do so.

In Aberdeen, a community campaign has been mounted against proposals to concrete over St Fittick’s Park and turn it over to an “energy transition zone” for hydrogen and other oil-industry-connected technologies.

Hopefully, ways can be found to join up such local campaigns with each other, and with the broader movement in favour of a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, and against new oil and gas investment.

On Saturday I suggested some policy points around which campaigns could unify, at an on-line meeting organised by the climate justice campaign group Scot.E3: 

■ A moratorium on hydrogen for home heating and transport;

■ A moratorium on hydrogen import plans that plunder the global south;

■ More, faster funding for insulation, heat pumps and training for engineers;

■ Demand investment in public transport and non-car transport modes (as opposed to investment in hydrogen for transportation);

■ Use life cycle emissions standards to combat greenwash; and

■ The labour movement and communities could develop holistic post-fossil-fuel strategies that treat energy as a service, not a commodity. 

Those are just my suggestions, to be improved upon by others. (The meeting was about “Hydrogen: the technofix that undermines climate action”. There is a video of my talk here, and the slides are here.)

It’s a great start that communities, climate campaigners and researchers are working together on this, against the oil and gas industry and its facilitators in government.

As things stand, though, much of the trade union hierarchy and the Labour Party – e.g. in councils, both in Yorkshire and in Cheshire – are on the fossil fuel companies’ side.

Unite, for example, last year issued a Plan for Jobs that includes wildly inaccurate assertions that carbon capture and storage cuts the cost of UK decarbonisation by more than half, and that using it in the North Sea would “create 68,000 jobs by 2050”.

These wild claims for CCS, and the failure to look at alternatives, mirror closely what the oil companies are saying. Unite members will find reasons to challenge this approach e.g. in a report on hydrogen and the associated technologies, including CCS, published by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy in April.

Here is an overview of UK government hydrogen policy, and some suggestions for further reading. SP, 16 December 2022.

UK government hydrogen policy: the main points

■ The government’s Energy Security Strategy (April 2022) raised the target for hydrogen output stated in the Hydrogen Strategy, from 5 gigawatts (GW) to 10 GW. (Ministers claim that half of this hydrogen would be “green” (from renewables); so presumably half would be “blue”?)

■ Two carbon capture and storage “clusters” have been approved: HyNET and the East Coast Cluster. The latter cluster aims to capture carbon from Drax power station – where Biofuelwatch and others are combating greenwashing claims – and from industry on Teesside.

■ The H21 project, sponsored by Equinor, Cadent and Northern Gas Networks, is part of the strategy. It aims to convert 15.7 million homes, starting in Yorkshire and the north east, from gas to hydrogen by 2050. Initial reports were funded by the taxpayer (£15.8 million in 2017-19); a Front End Engineering & Design study would cost £250 million. Friends of the Earth, who advocate a programme of insulation and heat pumps instead, point out that to do it with “green” hydrogen would need more than six times UK current wind capacity; to do it with “blue” hydrogen would need 60 carbon capture and storage plants, as big as the current biggest in the world. This project shows the extent to which hydrogen is a survival strategy for oil and gas companies, in my view.   

■ A decision next year on a test “hydrogen village”.   

■ Ministers NEVER talk about decarbonising current “grey” hydrogen production, from which carbon dioxide goes straight into the atmosphere.

■ Centrica, which plays a leading part in the hydrogen lobby, is in partnership with Ryze Hydrogen. Jo Bamford, Ryze Hydrogen CEO, is son of Anthony Bamford, a big Tory donor and JCB boss

More to watch and read about hydrogen

Virtual meeting with residents of Whitby Hydrogen Village – video. Researchers Tom Baxter, Paul Martin and Jan Rosenow discuss the impacts of using 100% hydrogen in home heating, 9 November

Hydrogen: the technofix that undermines climate action – video. Talk by Simon Pirani at a Scot.E3 virtual meeting, 10 December. (Slides here.)

Hydrogen Science Coalition

□ For first-class technical explanations, see blog posts by David Cebon, University of Cambridge, on the pros and cons of using hydrogen for powering lorriesheating buildings and electricity storage, and one bringing together the arguments.

The hydrogen hoax – People & Nature

Global Witness report on hydrogen heating, September 2022

□ Leigh Collins of Recharge News, the energy business news site, comments on industry lobbying in the UK parliament, July 2021.

3 Responses to Communities question hydrogen hype

  1. Walking Away says:

    Thanks for this very comprehensive and interesting post. I’ve bookmarked it so I can refer to it (and refer others to it) as I suspect sadly this is going to keep coming up.

  2. psomerville says:

    Thanks for the Cebon blogs in particular, which are very helpful. Has anyone commented on the fact that the planning inspector’s approval for the West Cumbrian coal mine, now endorsed by government, was supported by arguments claiming that the development of hydrogen for steel making as an alternative to using coking coal was unlikely to be commercially available at scale until well after 2030?

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