The UK has cancelled a highly controversial programme to test hydrogen heating in 1,800 properties in Redcar in the northeast of England, citing a lack of adequate low-carbon hydrogen supply.

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The news comes as the government announced the winners of its first ever hydrogen subsidy auction — in which only one of the two proposed renewable H2 projects local to Redcar was successful.

The Department of Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), which commissioned and was planning to part-subsidise the trial, made the announcement today (Thursday), just days before the gas company behind the trial, Northern Gas Networks (NGN) and government officials had scheduled a public meeting to address residents’ concerns about a range of issues, including the safety of burning hydrogen in a domestic setting and ongoing costs.

However, although the UK government has baulked at testing H2 in domestic heating in England — it has not ruled out using hydrogen in heating altogether, ahead of a final decision in 2026.

“Ministers have decided not to proceed with a hydrogen trial in Redcar, as the main source of hydrogen will not be available,” DESNZ said. “The government recognises the potential role of hydrogen in home heating and will assess evidence from the neighbourhood trial in Fife, as well as similar schemes across Europe, to decide in 2026 whether and how hydrogen could help households in the journey to net zero.”

This approach runs against the evidence in now-54 independent studies showing that hydrogen will play next to no role in hydrogen heating. The government's infrastructure advisors reached a similar conclusion this autumn.

Local Member of Parliament Jacob Young wrote to the minister in charge of DESNZ, Claire Coutinho, last night, calling for the hydrogen heating trial proposal for Redcar to be revived if “issues” with it are resolved.

Teeside supply

Meanwhile NGN expressed disappointment at the cancellation of their proposal.

“Unfortunately, today, the government confirmed that our Redcar Hydrogen Community project will not be going ahead,” the company said in a statement. “This is because there will not be adequate low carbon hydrogen available to supply the Redcar Hydrogen Community. As a result, the government has decided that the project is no longer deliverable.”

NGN was planning to source low-carbon hydrogen from two local projects, one of which, BP’s H2Teeside project, would supply blue H2 made from fossil gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS).

H2Teeside is currently undergoing public consultation, with plans to bring 1GW on line by 2030. However, in October one of the local authorities warned that it is taking longer than expected to remove hazardous materials from the site planned for the project, a former steelworks.

The gas distributor has not revealed the name of the other project from which it was due to source hydrogen, a renewable H2 scheme, but told Hydrogen Insight that the situation had changed since it first proposed the Redcar trial, with regards to “expected green hydrogen production coming online”.

There are two possible candidates for this, the first of which, EDF’s 5-7.5MW Tees Green H2 project, was today awarded funding from the government’s HAR1 subsidy programme. EDF hopes to bring Tees Green on line by 2026, scaling up to 300MW by 2030.

But the second, more likely, candidate is the HyGreen Teeside project operated by BP, which was absent from today’s subsidy awards, either because it dropped out or its bid was unsuccessful.

NGN already had a preliminary offtake agreement for Redcar with BP for H2Teeside. Hydrogen Insight has contacted both BP for comment.

Sensors

The decision to cancel was also made amid growing opposition among residents and serious questions about whether NGN had consent to proceed, especially as the government said it would only move forward with “strong public support”.

The trial was scheduled to launch in 2025, with residents set to be cut off from the fossil gas network and forced to choose between switching to a hydrogen boiler or an electric equivalent — a heat pump or electric boiler.

Apart from the matter of public consent, residents opposed to the trial expressed concerns about the safety of using hydrogen in homes or local businesses.

A report commissioned by the UK’s safety regulators in 2021 recommended installing four-inch square ventilation holes in rooms with a hydrogen appliance to prevent ignition of hydrogen, which is prone to leak and could present a fire or explosion risk.

However, NGN said it would install hydrogen sensors instead of the ventilation holes, but some have warned that sensors are unreliable, hard to come by and difficult to maintain.

Trials on ten prototype domestic hydrogen sensors carried out by NGN and utility Wales and West in 2022 resulted in an 80% failure rate — ie, only two of the ten models passed all the tests even when they were limited to compensate for the sensors’ sensitivity to humidity and temperature.

Future prototypes could be improved to pass all the tests for all variations of temperature and humidity, a report into the sensor trials concluded, but warned that further assessments would be required to demonstrate they could detect a slow accumulation of H2.

Consent?

DESNZ originally commissioned the trial — and paid out 90% of NGN’s design costs — with the aim of testing hydrogen in the network ahead of a decision on whether to support hydrogen heating more generally.

Experts have speculated that the gas companies’ primary aim in promoting the trial is to secure a legal basis for future investment in the gas network — for which, under the UK’s regulated asset base rules, gas companies can later claim compensation if the gas network is eventually shut down.

Two so-called “hydrogen villages” of up to 2,000 properties, including Redcar, were originally proposed for the trial, but the second one in Ellesmere Port was scrapped after a furious public backlash against having the proposal forced on them.

Following the PR disaster surrounding the proposal in Ellesmere Port, the UK government promised that no trial would go ahead without “strong local support”, which NGN claimed to have achieved in Redcar on the back of a survey it carried out in late 2022.

However an investigation by Hydrogen Insight found that the survey was flawed and based on a tiny number of respondents — and public opposition has been growing steadily in recent months.

Last week, in what was widely seen as a last-ditch attempt to secure public backing in the area, NGN offered residents thousands of pounds to participate in the trial.