The hydrogen economy can help ensure a green and resilient economic recovery
“Anywhere where there's gas today, you could see hydrogen being tomorrow,” says Dr Angie Needle, Head of Stategy at Cadent. | Credit: Cadent
PoliticsHome recently spoke to Dr Angie Needle, Director of Strategy at Cadent Gas, to learn more about their strategy for the transition to net zero and how this can contribute to a green and resilient economic recovery.
“Now is a really crucial and pivotal time for the gas industry,” says Dr Angie Needle, Director of Strategy at Cadent Gas, speaking to PoliticsHome recently. “The Net Zero legislation has set a completely new agenda, and Cadent have got an amazing opportunity to be the delivery vehicle for green gases in the future.”
Cadent deliver gas to 11 million customers. With the Government aiming to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the organisation is working hard to demonstrate the gas industry’s role in this transition. “We know net zero has an end goal. But actually, nobody's yet developed any particular goals for gas,” she says.
Having graduated with an environmental science degree, Dr Needle has led a successful career in utilities. “I’ve always been a bit of a greeny,” says Dr Needle. She started her career at Anglian Water, developing the organisation’s strategy for carbon emissions.
Dr Needle left Anglian Water to join energy services business Centrica, where she designed their strategy for the workforce. She is also a founding member of the Women’s Utility Network, an organisation with 1,400 members that aims to improve the career paths and development of women in the sector.
In her new role as Director of Strategy at Cadent, addressing the net zero transition is her top priority. “I actually left Centrica because I wanted to make a bigger difference in the net zero space,” says Dr Needle.
To drive this strategy forward in the gas industry, Dr Needle believes the decarbonisation of heat and the role of gas distribution networks in support of this are the “first problem to solve.”
In the UK, 300 terawatt hours of electricity are used every year, but this is dwarfed by the 900-terawatt hours of gas which is used. “In the grand scheme of the energy that the country needs, gas far outweighs electricity. I'm always surprised at how little attention it gets,” says Dr Needle.
“We undoubtedly therefore have a role in articulating what net zero looks like using the existing gas infrastructure, how that can be utilised, and the best way to get there.”
Cadent have been working with other gas distribution networks to address this, thinking about options from the transportation of hydrogen through to how renewable sources can deliver energy for homes.
“When you think about how you decarbonise those you've got to think really carefully, so that you do it in the most efficient way for businesses and consumers that are affected,” she says.
The role of hydrogen
With the whole country dependent upon the energy that gas provides, ensuring that gas industry transitions to net zero is imperative to meeting the government’s target.
Cadent believe hydrogen will play a crucial role in achieving this.
“The Committee on Climate Change has already acknowledged that you need a gas, and renewable gas of some kind, to get to net zero, because gas does things that electricity can't,” says Dr Needle.
“Anywhere where there's gas today, you could see hydrogen being tomorrow.”
Gas can help with seasonal peaks, provide storage and helps to increase resilience in the energy system.
“Anywhere where there's gas today, you could see hydrogen being tomorrow.”Domestic homes, industry, and the transport and power generation sectors are yet to fully decarbonise because they're still connected to natural gas. Dr Needle states many would benefit from the transition to hydrogen.
“We're not saying that gas is the answer to everything, and you shouldn't have any other answer. What we're saying is that hydrogen should and will needed in the mix for us to get to net zero.”
“Anywhere where there's gas today, you could see hydrogen being tomorrow.”
The work around hydrogen has already begun for Cadent who have been working on how it can be applied to the existing network. They have been running a project at Keele University, where they successfully blended 20% hydrogen into the gas network.
For consumers, hydrogen can also be conveniently applied to the energy mix. Many existing appliances (boilers etc) can operate on 20% hydrogen. “You could start blending hydrogen into the current network and nobody would know any difference and you're taking carbon out straightaway,” says Dr Needle. Appliances can also be converted for full hydrogen usage relatively easily and cheaply.
“If you can blend hydrogen into the network, you can immediately start decarbonising lots of homes, even if it's just a proportion,” explained Dr Needle
“We ought to talk about the safety aspects of Hydrogen, as quite rightly this is one of the things the public will be most concerned about”. Cadent along with other gas distribution companies and BEIS are exploring the safety aspects of 100% hydrogen in the network and in homes across a range of appliances and uses. “We are pleased to say that so far, we see hydrogen as being safer than natural gas due to its properties. One of the overarching benefits is that the combustion of hydrogen produces just water, so there is a significant health benefit from reduced carbon monoxide.”
Many countries around the world now see hydrogen as playing a crucial role in meeting future energy needs, including Australia and Germany, where they have published strategies specifically for hydrogen.
“We've got an opportunity to retain and grow a significant amount of jobs, expertise, talent, and equipment that we'll need so that we establish our own hydrogen economy,” says Dr Needle.
To do this will require stimulating hydrogen production at scale. Cadent’s Director of Strategy advocates using the UK’s industrial clusters to do so: “They need a gas to run their industrial processes.”
The industrial cluster in the North West of England sits within Cadent’s operating region and there, the organisation as part of a consortium have been planning a project called HyNet. HyNet will extract hydrogen from natural gas and use carbon capture and storage for the remaining carbon dioxide. The hydrogen will be used to for nearby industrial processes. This is just one way of producing hydrogen, there is another that uses renewable power to create hydrogen from a process called electrolysis.
“If you've got industrial use of hydrogen, then you've got scale. And then you've got an opportunity to blend surplus and to add any more hydrogen into the current network,” says Dr Needle.
To start hydrogen production on a substantial scale, Dr Needle calls for incentives in the market for hydrogen producers that would stimulate buyers. “We need incentives for production of hydrogen, we need a sort of regulated asset base type incentive model for people who are going to end up running those assets in the long term.”
Dr Needle also advocates the need to “draw from consumers” a green gas obligation that includes hydrogen: “So for those people who buy green electricity today, you could buy green gas too,” she explains. Resulting in a carbon neutral home.
Cadent are also calling on the Government to look at a “hydrogen-ready boiler mandate” by 2025, to ensure that all boilers sold in the country are hydrogen ready. “At the time, when we've got sufficient hydrogen in the network to transition from the current blends to a future higher blend, we can transition that property to hydrogen without a great deal of intervention,” she explained.
However, Dr Needle is also well aware of the effects the current coronavirus pandemic may have on the net zero agenda. For individuals, Dr Needle believes it may affect their ability and desire to invest in new boilers and energy efficiency infrastructure for their homes. She calls again on government incentives to support this: “Net zero is going to take a lot of persuasion for individuals to change their homes, and that's one of the big challenges.”
She does however see that the current crisis could present an opportunity for the larger net zero agenda, by bringing forward infrastructure investments: “I think there's an opportunity here more than a threat. The CCC’s letter this week is a welcome reminder of the opportunity that lies beyond this global crisis, that there can be growth and prosperity beyond it. As Lord Deben said this week “The actions needed to tackle climate change are central to rebuilding our economy.
“The hydrogen economy could help to bring forward the jobs that we need, the skills that we need and the potential for the UK to be a global hydrogen leader making the UK the place where everybody comes to for hydrogen expertise and technology.”