How technology can help build a greener future

Ruggley Power Station has been demolished and will now be replaced by a community that draws energy from the area's canals
Ruggley Power Station has been demolished and will now be replaced by a community that draws energy from the area’s canals

But 100 residents from the West Midlands may have helped find at least part of the answer to Britain’s energy crisis. Because for two years, their home was heated with hydrogen.

“Hydrogen has a huge role to play in decarbonising the UK,” said Sharon George, the top climate scientist leading the experiment.

In this experiment, the natural gas supply to 100 homes and 30 university buildings in Staffordshire was fueled by a mixture of 80 percent methane (the standard gas most of us use) and 20 percent hydrogen. Not a full replacement at the time, but it demonstrated a relatively easy way to end Britain’s reliance on fossil fuels without having to replace any infrastructure or equipment. With a few small tweaks — replacing our cookers and central heating boilers with compatible models — it’s entirely possible that hydrogen could meet all of our heating needs.

“The technology already exists,” said George, a senior lecturer at Keele University.

“We’ve shown that we can add up to 20 percent of the hydrogen to the grid without really noticing the difference.”

It is predicted that by 2050, hydrogen could become 35% of the UK’s energy source. But what good is it? Aside from the fact that it can be made in this country, ending the West’s reliance on unstable regimes in the Middle East and Putin’s Russia, another advantage is that it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases into the air, helping the global warm-up.

George said that if the Staffordshire experiment were replicated across the country, carbon emissions would be cut by about 6 million tonnes — the equivalent of taking 2.5 million cars off the road — without anyone giving up anything.

Taking the technology one step further, she said, it could completely replace the use of hydrocarbons.

“If we can use it for other things, like transportation or manufacturing, consider all the high-temperature manufacturing processes that currently use natural gas,” she said.

“Everything we use produces carbon dioxide, if we can work with these manufacturers, if we can work with the trucks that take your waste away, if we can work with the bus companies that drive public transport, hydrogen is already in the UK play a huge role in infrastructure.”

While hydrogen technology clearly has enormous potential to put us on the path to a greener future, there are inevitable questions about whether net-zero goals are such a priority in the face of energy shortages.

George, the daughter of a coal miner who lives in Loggerheads near Market Drayton, said ignoring climate change would only exacerbate the cost of living crisis.

“You just have to look at how it affects farmers’ yields to see the impact of climate change on our cost of living,” she said.

“There’s a lot of farmland in Staffordshire and Shropshire and the kind of weather we’ve been experiencing makes food production difficult here,” she said.

She noted that the damage from flooding will not only affect crops this year, but also soil damage in future years.

“Virtually any crop that depends on water and is vulnerable to storm damage will be affected,” she said.

“Tomatoes and food crops were severely affected, driving prices up sharply.”

The technology is already here. In fact, 144 hydrogen buses are already in use in the West Midlands, while Staffordshire-based JCB has developed excavators powered by natural gas. Currently, there are two stumbling blocks. The first is the upfront cost of retrofitting national infrastructure and replacing traditional vehicles and machinery with hydrogen fuel.

“If it becomes more common, the cost will come down,” she said.

The second stumbling block would be producing hydrogen economically, but doing so without actually causing damage to the planet. Currently, “grey hydrogen” is the most common form, and it is produced by removing carbon from methane and depositing it into the atmosphere — which is not good for the environment or the economy. Slightly better is “blue” hydrogen, in which the carbon is extracted from methane and stored.

“This means that if you remove gas from under the North Sea, you can put carbon into the space where you removed it,” George said. This has the advantage of reducing carbon emissions, but still makes us dependent on our natural gas reserves.

A more sustainable option is “green hydrogen,” in which the gas is extracted from water through electrolysis, using electricity generated from sustainable sources, such as solar, wind or wave energy. “Yellow” hydrogen uses a similar principle, but the electricity is produced by nuclear energy. While the potential benefits of being able to turn water into fuel are enormous, the current issue is cost — and the age-old conundrum of how to produce sufficient quantities of green electricity.

“The beauty of hydrogen is as a portable energy store,” George said. In other words, it’s a bit like methane or gasoline, but can be produced without greenhouse gases.

She is also excited about the work at the Tesley Energy Park in Birmingham, which is home to a government-backed project to produce hydrogen from ammonia. Funded with the help of a £6.7 million grant from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the programme aims to design, build, commission and operate the world’s largest and most efficient ammonia-to-hydrogen conversion unit of its kind, supplying existing hydrogen fuel Car gas station.

The Hydex consortium, which includes the Universities of Keele, Aston and Birmingham, estimates that early-stage investment in ammonia-hydrogen technology could create more than 97,000 jobs and generate £16 billion for the economy.

Part of the solution to the UK’s energy conundrum may also be underground, George said. Anyone who has visited Bath Spa will know of the vast untapped source of underground heat. Keele University is working with Stoke-on-Trent City Council on a project that will use hot water two miles below the city to bring energy to the surface through a system of heat exchangers.

“This natural heat source will have a huge impact on reducing our reliance on imported natural gas, saving an estimated 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year,” George said.

“This equates to a reduction of more than 2,000 cars.”

A similar principle will be used on the site of the former Rugley Power Station, which was demolished last year after decades of emitting greenhouse gases into the sky. It will be replaced by a “low-carbon hybrid community” powered by a nearby canal. George also said some of the former mines below Blackshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire could also play an important role in storing energy from solar and wind.

“The problem with solar is that in winter when there’s less sunlight, more energy is needed,” she said.

“If we can use the energy produced in summer to heat water and store it underground, then we can use that energy in winter. If water is stored underground, it can hold heat for months.”

So noble so far, but George also said a greener future would require controversial decisions, including investments in nuclear energy.

“We can’t have the best of both worlds, you can’t have a secure energy supply if you’re not prepared to make unpopular decisions,” she said.

“If we invest more in nuclear energy, we certainly won’t have the short-term problems that we have to deal with right now.

“If we switch to renewable energy, we need resources such as nuclear to provide energy during the transition.”

Does this extend to fracking? George is skeptical but has not ruled it out entirely, acknowledging the potential environmental benefits of producing more natural gas in the country.

“It’s probably more efficient than transporting natural gas around the world because of all the leaks that could result,” she said.

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

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