The owner of the UK’s biggest gas distribution network, with 80,000 miles of pipes, explains how gas has a role in the net zero future
If you manage a public building, run your own business, or own your own home, you’re no doubt thinking right now about how you can make it carbon neutral. Before you start a massive, costly overhaul, pause and find out why your options may involve less disruption than you think…
This is set to be a pivotal year for UK action and decisions on climate change. The nation now has a course firmly set for ‘net zero’ by 2050 and an Energy White Paper is expected to land. The UK is also due to host the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow in November.
It is a pivotal year too for Cadent, the owner of the biggest gas network in the UK. It manages over 80,000 miles of underground pipes, distributing gas to more than 11 million properties.
Cadent knows the gas carried through those pipes needs to be much greener to support a clean energy future. That’s why Cadent is involved in the climate change debate, advising decision-makers as they plot the pathway to cutting carbon emissions, at both regional and national level.
Cadent’s central argument is for a ‘whole systems’ approach – advocating that the UK opts for multiple, sustainable means to meet its energy needs, and not rely on one single energy source.
Of all the options on the table, repurposing the gas network to carry greener energy will be the least disruptive and the least-cost. The Committee on Climate Change has determined that the use of hydrogen in our energy system is necessary in order to reach the net zero target.
“There is no one-size-fits-all answer to reaching net zero,” said Dr Angela Needle, Director of Strategy at Cadent.
“To be realistic and truly sustainable, we need to look at a range of solutions and choices. For some things, renewable electricity will be the answer, but for others – such as decarbonising heavy industry, how we heat our homes and public buildings, and how we power many of our vehicles – it’s clear that gas is going to continue to have a role too; greener gas, such as hydrogen.”
Heating homes and businesses accounts for half of the UK’s energy use and one third of its carbon emissions. Some 85% of buildings are heated by gas – and for good reason.
Gas is the best technology for delivering and storing large volumes of heat energy. For example, Cadent’s London network alone provides 24GW at peak hours in winter – this would require the equivalent output of seven Hinkley Point C nuclear power stations if this heat was electrified.
Gas is also very flexible: it can cope with the huge seasonal and in-day variations in heat demand. And, in a move set to transform the UK energy landscape, this gas we rely on is getting much greener – with Cadent-backed projects on track for large-scale use of hydrogen as soon as 2024.
The UK is no stranger to hydrogen – it was a substantial component of the ‘town gas’ that heated our homes until the discovery and switch to methane-rich North Sea gas more than 50 years ago.
Now, in 2020, Cadent is a leading player in seeking to put it back into the network – and, in so doing, achieve huge reductions in UK carbon emissions. Unlike methane (i.e. most of the gas we use now), hydrogen produces ZERO carbon at point of use. So, using it to help heat homes and public buildings, as well as for heavy industry and transport (fuel for HGVs, busses and trains) will massively reduce carbon emissions.
Cadent is leading the charge. Late in 2019, HyDeploy, a project led by Cadent, began at Keele University in Staffordshire. Hydrogen is being distributed via existing pipes, into existing appliances, to around 100 homes and 30 faculty buildings. It is being blended with natural gas at volumes up to 20% – at that volume, there is no need to change any pipes or appliances. Customers use gas exactly the same way, but with one big difference: overnight, they have substantially reduced their carbon footprint. Two more demonstrations will conclude before the end of 2022.
And these then lead into a Cadent-backed plan to introduce hydrogen at the same 20% volume to around 2 million homes in North West England. This is part of a wider project, HyNet, conceived by Cadent and now backed by industry, business and political leaders. As well as heating homes, the HyNet project envisages using hydrogen also for meeting the colossal heat demand from energy-intensive heavy industry in the North West region, as well as a fuel for transport.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of these projects. They are not only the first practical demonstration and first large-scale use of hydrogen in a modern gas network in the UK: they could also be the launchpad for a wider hydrogen economy, fuelling industry and transport, bringing thousands of new jobs, and making Britain a knowledge-hub and world-leader in this technology.
Cadent believes that repurposing the existing gas network to take green gases like hydrogen and also biomethane means we can decarbonise heat while minimising the disruption and cost to all consumers, including those who can least afford expensive new technologies.
Dr Needle added: “Blending is a great place to start. It allows us to make carbon savings now without members of the public having to do anything at all: no change in how warm we are; no change in behaviour; no change in heating systems; and no disruption. Rolled out across the country, the UK would save 6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year – the equivalent to taking 2.5 million cars off the road.
“A 20% blend of hydrogen and natural gas alone won’t get us to net zero but it does open the door to that possibility. Blending would kickstart the hydrogen supply chain and the scale of hydrogen production needed to reach higher hydrogen blends or even 100% hydrogen.
“Importantly too, blending means carbon savings now while other low carbon technologies are being developed, and while Government frameworks and policies are being put in place to allow hydrogen to become part of our energy mix.”
Please note: This is a commercial profile