Residents of a town in northern England have been told this week to expect an imminent government decision on whether or not a gas company will be allowed — and paid — to carry out a controversial hydrogen heating trial on 1,800 homes in the area, despite growing anxiety about costs and safety and serious concerns over whether there is local consent for the project.
Locals had hoped that the gas company behind the Redcar proposal, Northern Gas Networks (NGN) would host a public forum in early December in which they would receive impartial advice about the project, which the town’s council says NGN "promised" to do.
And Hydrogen Insight has learned that a number of residents that previously said they were in favour of the scheme are now coming forward to say that they have changed their minds since they were first surveyed — a development which could undermine NGN's claim that it has "strong local support" for the scheme.
But with the news that government officials are travelling to the town of Redcar next month to address residents at the meeting, those affected by the so-called Hydrogen Village programme fear that the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) will use the platform not to grant them access to impartial advice, but to announce that the trial has been given the go-ahead, pending the sign-off from safety regulators.
DESNZ told Hydrogen Insight that it has not yet made a decision on the trial, while NGN said it was not aware of any announcement scheduled for the meeting. However commentators were sceptical.
“It’s unlikely that the government will go all the way to Redcar, having said they will make a decision in December, and not make the announcement,” independent energy analyst and investor Michael Liebreich told Hydrogen Insight on Monday, adding that it would also be “odd” if DESNZ made the trip to say that the trial has been cancelled.
The notion is particularly jarring considering that NGN, according to local authority leader Alec Brown, promised privately that it would facilitate an “independent debate” to address residents’ concerns amid a spiralling backlash in the town. NGN has not yet responded to questions from Hydrogen Insight on whether it ever made this promise.
A protest in the town centre on Saturday attracted 140 people —double the number that attended the initial demonstration in Whitby, the other trial area previously in the running to host the government-commissioned programme, that was eventually cancelled.
Residents opposed to the scheme had asked for NGN to platform independent speakers who had addressed a meeting organised by locals earlier this month, namely energy analyst and investor Michael Liebreich, University of Cambridge mechanical engineering professor David Cebon, and the chair of the Hydrogen Sussex organisation, Abigail Dombey.
NGN refused to attend the community-organised meeting, citing its objection to the circulation of “misinformation”, an accusation that was furiously refuted by the speakers, all of whom are qualified engineers and have been involved in other hydrogen-related work.
But the NGN-run meeting on 18 December will limit speakers to government officials and NGN employees, and only residents and landlords affected by the trial will be allowed to attend, apparently in an effort to exclude voices not explicitly sanctioned by the gas company.
“This is a meeting for residents with government and NGN,” a spokesperson for the NGN said. “Speakers will be those who are involved in the project rather than individuals who have no knowledge of the design, any experience of running safe gas networks, or in adapting hydrogen for use across the gas networks.”
“Strong-arming us against our will”
Meanwhile, residents were furious to find that their request for impartial advice appears to have been ignored.
“How can we have an unbiased debate without independent experts? This is nothing more than a PR stunt from the NGN sales team intended to strong-arm us against our will,” said Carl Conway, who lives in the trial area.
The government has repeatedly insisted that evidence of “strong public support” must underpin any positive decision on the trial.
NGN’s survey of affected households, carried out in 2022, found that 76% of respondents were in favour, with 19% indifferent and 5% against. However, as an investigation by Hydrogen Insight found, this was based on a tiny response rate of a maximum of 35%, raising the question of whether it can really demonstrate strong local support it needs.
Failure to provide access to impartial advice from those without a stake in the trial going ahead raises the additional question of whether residents can give informed consent.
And since NGN’s survey was carried out, resistance to the trial has been growing. The community-organised meeting last month appears to have galvanised many residents, who are being aided by community activists from Whitby in Ellesmere Port, where a public backlash against a similar hydrogen heating trial proposal ended up with the scheme being pulled.
“Experiments with human subjects usually require explicit consent, transparency and ethical scrutiny,” Angela Whitworth, another affected resident, told Hydrogen Insight. “We have been afforded none of these!”
Hydrogen Insight has now learned that a number of householders in the affected area are now trying to contact NGN, to tell them they have changed their mind since they were first surveyed.
Dawn Campbell, a landlord with a property in the trial area, told Hydrogen Insight that she initially answered the survey to say she was in favour of the trial, due to the number of jobs she believed it would bring to the area.
However since learning more about the risks of using hydrogen to heat homes, she has changed her mind.
“I've spent my life building up this investment [in my property],” she told the public meeting in Redcar earlier this month. “I'm concerned about my tenants and my investment.”
“They made it sound a good thing but since reading articles etc I for one have changed my mind, same with my husband,” said another resident on a private Facebook group yesterday. “I suppose this has been the case with a lot of residents hence the reason we need a VOTE. We've lived in Coatham for the last 49 years, what right does the government and NGN think they can just force this change on us... I don't want it.”
Central to residents’ concerns is safety, with many having seen the Arup report published for the UK government in 2021 which recommends installing four-inch-square non-closeable vents in rooms containing hydrogen appliances, in order to disperse H2 in the event of a leak.
NGN has since said it will install hydrogen sensors rather than vents, however this has not yet been signed off by the Health and Safety Executive, the UK’s safety regulator.
“Before any trials go ahead, the Health and Safety Executive will need to be satisfied it will run safely and we have committed to ensuring consumers are protected before, during and after any trial,” a spokesperson for DESNZ told Hydrogen Insight.
And while householders will have the cost of hydrogen fuel covered for the duration of the two-year trial, they have also been told that they will be left to carry the financial burden of running expensive heating equipment once the trial is over.
This is despite NGN receiving public subsidies of 90% for the £6.64m cost of running the project’s design phase, with further subsidies expected for its execution.
The UK government wants the trial to feed in to a decision it is planning to make in 2026 on whether to support hydrogen in domestic heating.