How technology is helping to build a greener future

For two years, nobody noticed a thing. People switched on their heating, and their homes became warmer. They turned on their hobs, and they were cooking on gas.

Rugeley Power Station has been demolished, and will now be replaced with a community that derives energy from the area's canals
Rugeley Power Station has been demolished, and will now be replaced with a community that derives energy from the area's canals

But the 100 householders from the West Midlands may have helped come up with at least some of the answers to Britain's energy crisis. Because for two years their homes were heated with hydrogen.

"Hydrogen has a huge role to play in the decarbonisation of the UK," says Sharon George, a top climate scientist who led the experiment.

The experiment saw the gas supply to 100 homes and 30 university buildings in Staffordshire fuelled by a mixture of 80 per cent methane – the standard gas most of us use – and 20 per cent hydrogen. Not a total substitution then, but it demonstrated a relatively painless way to end Britain's dependency on fossil fuels, without the need to replace any infrastructure or equipment. And with a few minor adjustments – replacing our cookers and central heating boilers with compatible models – it is perfectly possible for hydrogen to meet all our heating needs.

"The technology is already here," says George, a senior lecturer at Keele University.

"We have already demonstrated that we can put up to 20 per cent hydrogen into our grid and not really notice that difference."

It has been predicted that by 2050, hydrogen could be the source of 35 per cent of Britain's energy. But what is the benefit? Well aside from the fact that it is possible to manufacture in this country, ending the West's dependence on unstable regimes such as the Middle East and Putin's Russia, the other advantage is that it doesn't pump greenhouse gases into the air, contributing to global warming.

George says if the Staffordshire experiment were replicated across the entire country, carbon emissions would be reduced by about six million tons – the equivalent of taking 2.5 million cars off the road – without anybody having to give anything up.

And she says taking the technology a stage further, it can replace the use of hydrocarbons entirely.

"If we can use that for other things, like transport or manufacture, think about all those high-temperature manufacturing processes that currently use gas," she says.

"Carbon dioxide is produced as a result of everything we use, if we can work with those manufacturers, if we can work with the trucks that take your waste away, if we can work with the bus companies that drive the public transport, hydrogen has a huge role to play in the infrastructure of Britain."

While hydrogen technology clearly has great potential in putting us on the path to a greener future, there will inevitably be questions about whether net-zero targets are such a priority in the midst of an energy shortage.

George, a coalminer's daughter who lives in Loggerheads, near Market Drayton, says ignoring climate changing will only exacerbate the cost-of-living crisis.

"You only have to look at how it is affecting farmer's yields to see that climate change is having an effect on our cost of living," she says.

"There is a lot of farmland in Staffordshire and Shropshire, and the sort of weather we have been having makes it hard for food production here," she says.

She points out that the damage caused by flooding not only affects this year's crops, but will harm the soil for years to come.

"Practically any crop that relies on water and is susceptible to storm damage is affected," she says.

"Tomatoes and grain crops have been badly affected, driving prices much higher."

The technology is already here. Indeed, there are already 144 hydrogen buses are already being used across the West Midlands, while Staffordshire-based JCB has developed diggers powered by the gas. At the moment, there are two stumbling blocks. The first, is the upfront cost of converting the nation's infrastructure, replacing conventional vehicles and machinery with that which runs on hydrogen.

"As it becomes more commonplace, the cost will come down," she says.

The second stumbling block will be producing hydrogen economically, without actually causing damage to the planet in doing so. At the moment, 'grey hydrogen' is the most common form, produced by removing the carbon from methane, and depositing it into the atmoshpere – which is of little benefit to either the environment or the economy. Slightly better is 'blue' hydrogen, where the carbon is extracted from methane and stored out of harm's way.

"That means, if you remove natural gas from under the North Sea, you can then put the carbon in the space where you have removed it from," says George. Which has the advantage of reducing carbon emissions, but still leaves us dependent on our natural gas reserves.

A more sustainable option is 'green hydrogen', where the gas is extracted from water by electrolysis, using electricity generated from sustainable sources, such as solar, wind or wave power. 'Yellow' hydrogen uses a similar principle, but the electricity is produced from nuclear power sources. While the potential benefits of being able to turn water into fuel are massive, the problem at the moment is the cost – and the old conundrum of how to produce sufficient quantities of green electricity.

"The beauty of hydrogen is as a portable store of energy," says George. In other words, it is a bit like methane or petrol, but can be produced without the greenhouse gases.

She is also excited by the work at Tyseley Energy Park in Birmingham, home to a government-backed project to produce hydrogen from ammonia. The scheme, funded with the help of a £6.7 million grant from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, aims to design, build, commission, and operate the world’s largest and most efficient ammonia-to-hydrogen conversion unit of its kind, supplying an existing hydrogen vehicle refuelling station.

The Hydex consortium, which includes Keele, Aston and Birmingham universities, reckons early investment in ammonia-hydrogen technology could created more than 97,000 jobs, generating £16 billion for the economy.

George says part of the solution to Britain's energy conundrum may also lie beneath the ground. Anyone who has visited Bath's hot springs will know about the vast untapped source of underground heat. And Keele University is working with Stoke-on-Trent Council on a project which will tap into hot water two miles beneath the city, bringing the energy to the surface through a system of heat exchangers.

"This natural source of heat will have a massive impact on lowering our reliance on imported gas, saving an estimated 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year," says George.

"This is the equivalent of taking more than 2,000 cars off the road."

A similar principle will be employed on the site of the former Rugeley Power Station, which was demolished last year after decades of pumping greenhouse gases into the sky. It will be replaced by a 'low-carbon mixed community', deriving its energy from the nearby canals. George also says some of the former mineshafts that lie below the Black Country, Staffordshire and Shropshire could also play an important role in storing energy generated by solar and wind power.

"The problem with solar power is that more energy is needed in the winter months, when there is less sunshine," she says,

"If we could use the energy produced in the summer to heat water and store it underground, we could then use that energy in the winter. Water can retain heat for many months if it is stored underground."

So far, so virtuous, but George also says that a greener future will also require controversial decisions, including investment in nuclear energy.

"We can't have it both ways, you can''t have a secure supply of energy if you are not prepared to make decisions that will be unpopular," she says.

"If we had invested more in nuclear energy, we certainly wouldn't be having the short-term problems we are having to deal with at the moment.

"As we are moving to renewables, we need sources such as nuclear to provide the energy during that transition."

And does that extend to fracking? George is sceptical, but doesn't entirely rule it out, acknowledging that there could be environmental benefits in producing more gas in this country.

"It is probably more efficient than transporting gas across the world, with all the leaks that might entail," she says.

"But you have to remember that shale gas is still a fossil fuel. I think it would probably be better to invest that money in other ways."

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