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COVID-19 cannot slow the pace of tackling climate change

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The Hy4Heat programme is exploring the decarbonisation of gas networks through establishing if it is technically possible, safe and convenient to replace methane with hydrogen in residential and commercial buildings. Effective programme management has kept the Hy4Heat on track, despite the various challenges from COVID-19.

With the current pandemic shining a light on how changing behaviours are resulting in emissions reductions, a future priority of government is likely to be how we can maintain these benefits into a post-coronavirus future.

Cooking with gas

Establishing a low-carbon alternative to methane for heating is a key element of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) Clean Growth Strategy. This sets out a path to achieve the UK’s climate change targets. Part of this has been a focus on solving the problem of CO2 emissions caused by most of us using natural gas for cooking and heating.

The UK’s gas network supplies more than two-thirds of domestic energy and creates more than 35 per cent of CO2 emissions. So, the £25m BEIS-funded Hydrogen for Heat programme (Hy4Heat) is investigating the technical and safety case of converting the UK’s gas network to run on hydrogen. The key advantage of hydrogen is that it does not release CO2 during combustion, unlike methane and all hydrocarbons.

BEIS appointed Arup+ as the programme manager and technical manager, with industry specialists Kiwa Gastec, Progressive Energy, Embers and Yo Energy also part of the team. Together, we oversee the programme and technical management of Hy4Heat. This programme is for three years and ends in March 2021.

The key focus of Hy4Heat is assessing the safety of using hydrogen in buildings and commissioning the development of new gas appliances. Hydrogen has different combustion characteristics to methane and so current gas appliances are unsuitable to use with it. This is a similar challenge to the one faced in the 1960s, when the gas network was converted from ‘Towns gas’ (a blend of 50 per cent hydrogen with methane and carbon monoxide) to 100 per cent methane.

Laying the groundwork for future trials

The programme management challenge has been focused on delivering a variety of highly technical workstreams to become the building blocks for future trials of hydrogen for heating. These include:

  • defining the gas standards;
  • developing hydrogen appliances, both domestic and commercial;
  • developing hydrogen meters;
  • certifying hydrogen appliances; and
  • ensuring there is an overall safety case to inform future policy decisions.

Across the Hy4Heat workstreams there are more than 40 contracts with organisations in the gas industry. So, managing the multiple interfaces and ensuring good communication channels have been important components of programme management. These have helped with:

  • increasing the collective knowledge of hydrogen across programme suppliers and wider industry; and
  • delivering outputs such as hydrogen-ready appliances (eg boilers, fires, cookers) in time for when gas distribution networks are planning trials using hydrogen.

Different procurement routes have been used across the programme to meet the variety of aims, time-scale requirements and number of intended suppliers relevant to each workstream.

A key programme challenge has been the need for workstreams to produce their outputs simultaneously. But this challenge has also delivered great benefits. For example, the BSI standard PAS 4444 for hydrogen has been written at the same time as appliance manufacturers have been developing appliances, so they have had the opportunity to feed into the PAS (publicly available specification) and make sure it’s robust.

A practical alternative

The impact of COVID-19 in the early part of 2020 has had a knock-on effect on the development of the hydrogen-ready appliances and milestone verification process. We all have needed to adapt to make sure that the verification process can still happen and remains thorough.

Prior to the pandemic, milestones were met by technical experts across the team physically attending suppliers’ labs and inspecting/confirming the product was progressing against requirements. Video-call demonstrations and submissions showing the required functionality of appliances have meant the programme has been able to limit delays. Provided these are carried out in the proper manner, the team has found they are a suitable and, in some ways, more practical alternative.

The successful continuation of government-sponsored carbon reduction programmes is going to be a top priority to ensure we do not surpass the point of no return, resulting in the worst climate change impacts. Whilst recent news coverage has highlighted the devastating impacts of the pandemic, these pale in comparison to the long term and wide-ranging potential impacts of the climate emergency. The Hy4Heat programme is as exciting as it is technically complex, but is leading the way in providing critical evidence in the step towards future community trials, which will in turn support climate reductions by use of lower associated carbon fuels in our gas networks.

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