‘We have no choice’: Residents fear life as lab rats in UK hydrogen heating pilot | Hydrogen energy
On the site of a former leisure centre, a trio of temporary U-shaped offices sit alongside a manicured lawn and budding shrubs. Dubbed the “Hydrogen Experience Center,” the unassuming location is at the heart of a tense fight that could impact how homes across the country are heated.
The site, in the village of Whitby, just outside Ellesmere Port on the south bank of the Mersey, could become the UK’s first ‘hydrogen village’. It is being analysed, with Redcar in the northeast, for potential conversion to 100% hydrogen heating, using the existing gas network and new appliances to update up to 2,000 properties.
The government will make a final decision on which village will participate in a two-year pilot project by next year. Hydrogen is seen by some as the ideal fuel to replace natural gas in homes and help Britain meet its climate targets. It can be produced by a variety of methods, including using electrolysis to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. It is colorless and odorless which means an odor should be added to help detect leaks.
A decision on whether to use hydrogen in the gas grid on a larger scale is expected in 2026. It will come one year after the ban on gas boilers in new homes came into effect in 2025 , although uncertainty remains over the timing of the phase-out of natural gas in existing homes.
However, there are concerns about the convenience of using hydrogen and the resulting cost to residents. Some people fear becoming reluctant “lab rats” for a technology that never takes off.
Proponents of hydrogen in homes say it will cause less disruption than heat pumps – its main competitor – in replacing natural gas, given that it would use existing pipelines. Critics say that while hydrogen will be important in decarbonizing heavy industry, there are safety issues such as leaks and line embrittlement. They also say that hydrogen is less efficient and more expensive than alternatives such as heat pumps, electric boilers and district heating – and will be difficult to manufacture in the quantities needed to supply households en masse. In reality, a combination of all the options may end up being used.
The gas companies finance a considerable lobbying effort in favor of the use of hydrogen in homes. Last month the industry launched the ‘Hello Hydrogen’ campaign to raise awareness and called on the government to ‘commit to a hydrogen future’. It is financed by gas network operators including Cadent and Northern Gas Networks (NGN); the boilermakers Baxi and Vaillant; the supplier British Gas; and Ryze Hydrogen, the company founded by Jo Bamford, son of conservative billionaire donor Anthony Bamford.
The Whitby or Redcar driver is not linked to this campaign, but could justify or undermine his efforts.
Whitby’s proposal to become a hydrogen test site – which is put forward by Cheshire West Council and Chester, Cadent and British Gas – would give residents a choice between alternatives to hydrogen or electricity. The cost of new appliances and installation would be covered and hydrogen would be subsidized to cost the same price as natural gas for two years.
But those who opted out of the hydrogen test could not stay on the gas. Cadent said he would consider subsidizing his electricity – which is usually more expensive than using gas – but he has not yet committed to it. At the end of the pilot project, if the decision is made to switch back to natural gas, Cadent will cover the costs.
“We are forced to take either hydrogen or an electric alternative if the pilot continues. There’s no choice but not to be part of it,” says John Roach, a retired housing manager who summoned residents to discuss the project.
“My main concerns are financial: they subsidize hydrogen for two years, but not beyond. Local boiler engineers told us they wouldn’t bother training for a small area. Thus, the maintenance and repair of boilers and appliances will be more expensive or difficult to find. We will be trapped. If we’re the only game in town, will it be easy to get a replacement? »
Another resident, Kate Grannell, says: “Nobody questions the fact that we need to move away from natural gas, but what many of us are saying is that the experts know that hydrogen is not not the long-term replacement for home heating. I won’t let the emperor sell me his new clothes.
Angela Needle, Chief Strategy Officer at Cadent, says: “This project came about because the UK needs to find solutions to decarbonize the way we heat our homes in the future. Electric heat pumps and district heating have been suggested as proposed solutions, but they may not fit into all homes in a cost-effective manner. »
Cadent had envisioned the village pilot would follow the H100 project, a similar hydrogen initiative in Fife, where new pipes are being laid to heat 300 homes for residents who voluntarily sign up. However, the guardian revealed that the four-year project in Scotland, which was due to start next year, has experienced delays, increasing the likelihood that the projects will run concurrently.
Literature distributed to residents says Whitby was highlighted because of its proximity to Stanlow, the oil refinery complex and the site of the proposed HyNet hydrogen plant to decarbonize the industrial heartland of the area. This year, listeners raised concerns on the financial health of Essar Oil (United Kingdom), owner of Stanlow. Since the initiative was announced, new proposals to supply ‘green’ hydrogen – which is created from renewable electricity – powered by the Frodsham wind farm have emerged.
Cadent now admits that the HyNet facility “will not produce hydrogen within the timeline required by the government for the project” and is looking at other sources. Its ambition is to operate the device with green or “low carbon” hydrogen.
Those pushing for Whitby to be selected for the trial say it is the right size, representative of a typical village, and the project could create local jobs.
Meanwhile, Redcar has been highlighted because of its proximity to Teesside, where BP is building a large-scale green hydrogen production facility.
Energy consultancy Cornwall Insight predicts that green hydrogen will cost consumers an extra £137 a year in 2025, peaking at £393 in 2030 before falling later.
“Lambs to the Slaughterhouse”
Ofgem provided £9.1m for two detailed design studies to forecast the costs. Officials have asked gas networks Cadent and NGN to fund 10% of the project, with the government and Ofgem covering the remaining costs.
Keith Lewington is a retired project manager in the pensions industry who moved to Whitby 39 years ago while working as an avionics technician in the Royal Air Force. “Our private residences have been set up like lambs to the slaughter for this and we have no way out,” he says. “Our choice is hydrogen or electricity. Either way, it will cost people more. I feel completely disappointed.
Lewington has written to the Association of British Insurers asking if the home insurance will be valid. A woman who has just moved to the area with her family told a local Facebook group that she was unaware of the proposals.
Justin Madders, the Labor MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, told parliament in May that residents could ‘spearhead a new way to heat our homes’ and backed the ‘exciting project’. He told the Guardian: “It is important that clear and unbiased information is given to residents about what this trial could mean for them. It’s also important that this only happens with public support, and I want to work with the residents.
Madders says Cadent initially said residents would have the option of continuing to use natural gas. Cadent denies it. The MP asked Cadent to agree to an independent survey of residents on the project. Cadent declined to commit, saying he already engages with the community and has visited more than 1,000 homes.