Left out in the cold

In the rush to renewables, decarbonising heat has been overlooked

STARTING IN THE 1960s, a flat-capped army of gasfitters fanned out across Britain to convert a network that used so-called town gas, a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and other gases, to one based on natural gas, recently discovered under the North Sea. The operation was meticulously planned to avoid stranding customers without heat, and avoiding gas leaks and explosions. Natural gas is less toxic than town gas, which is derived from coal, so the potential benefits were huge, not least that the suicide rate fell as fewer people gassed themselves with their ovens.

If Leeds, Britain’s third-largest city, has its way, parts of the country may soon put the process into reverse, going from natural gas back to hydrogen, though this time the pure stuff. Northern Gas Networks, a utility, has pioneered a project, called H21, that uses a blueprint based on Leeds to set out how Britain’s gas networks can be used to bring low-carbon hydrogen instead of natural gas into homes and businesses. Once the city’s old cast-iron pipes are fully replaced by polyethylene ones, the challenge will be to prove that hydrogen can be delivered safely at scale. If it can, Northern Gas hopes to provide hydrogen for heating and cooking across the north-east of England. It wants to make Leeds a powerhouse of a global hydrogen economy. To achieve that, it hopes to adapt the most common way of making hydrogen, by steam-methane reforming (SMR), capturing the CO2 emitted in the process.

Apart from the need to improve insulation in houses, heating gets little attention in discussions about the climate, though it is a huge consumer of energy, especially in chilly…