Will Ferguson, Manager of Medium, and Intern at We Grow Green Tech
Hydrogen. Seemingly the most abundant molecule in our atmosphere, its use in energy production has not been explored to much of an extent throughout human history, until now. Through proposing hydrogen as a natural gas substitute, in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the battle against climate change, our gas networks can be revolutionised to be all the more sustainable. One such site pioneering this radical development in utilising hydrogen in this way is Keele University, in Staffordshire, England. They have pioneered a scheme utilising hydrogen gas as an efficient source of renewable power, in place of conventional natural gas.
To power its buildings in a more sustainable way, Keele University has implemented a project to fuel a portion of its buildings over the 621 acres of the site. This has been achieved through investment in a project known as HyDeploy, involving a hydrogen buffer tank and an industrial-scale electrolyser situated on the campus connecting to the University’s privately-owned, isolated gas network, replacing a portion of the natural gas that once flowed through this system. Being one of the first universities in the UK to declare a ‘climate emergency’, with the commitment of the University to achieve a net-zero energy system by 2030, this fitted effectively with the agenda of the project, whilst aiding associated research in the field.
As a result, a maximum of 20% by volume blend of raw hydrogen has been combined with natural gas in its existing network, determined specifically for the project — the maximum percentage legally permitted to be deemed safe under England’s energy laws, which previously stood at 0.1%, due to how the UK moved to utilising 100% methane from the North Sea in the 1970s, to power their infrastructure, reflecting the drive for methane purity in the national gas system. The hydrogen content will be up to 20% and has so far reached 15% (HyDeploy, 2021), within its initial trials, which began in the Autumn (Fall) of 2019, although reached 18–20% by the end of the trial phase. HyDeploy has been trialled in powering several crucial buildings’ heating systems, and two sites of student accommodation, 36 buildings, 100 houses and the office of the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Trevor McMillan, which, being the first of its kind, has revolutionised the University’s heating potential, thus far.
The research behind this innovative solution is overseen by Professor Christopher Fogwill, the Head of Keele’s Geography, Geology and the Environment School at Keele, and Director of the Institute For Sustainable Futures, Professor Zoe Robinson, the Co-director and Director of Education for Sustainability and Jeremy Herbert, the Communications Officer for HyDeploy; all of whom were instrumental in the conceptualisation, birth and ongoing implementation of the project and its trials.
As of mid-2016, the project was conceived as a necessity in the University’s efforts to reduce its carbon emissions on a localised scale, with plans for the necessary infrastructure to be implemented in time for injection trials to begin on-campus, initiated in late 2019. This trial was to be conducted throughout the winter of that year, ensuring maximum efficiency in its first few months, due to heating infrastructure in Keele’s buildings likely being used constantly, with temperatures in these interior spaces providing an optimal space to conduct this. The University’s infrastructure ranges from the 1830s, to the 2010’s allowing the hydrogen blend to be assessed in several different environments, with differing interior insulation potentials, whilst simultaneously allowing an effective simulation of a national-scale rollout of the project. Not only has HyDeploy gained approval from the local community, fitting with their drive for sustainable energy, but has also drawn unprecedented interest from sustainability sectors worldwide.
The crucial partners to the success of the HyDeploy scheme involve the work of Keele University itself, Cadent Gas Limited, Progressive Energy, the UK’s Health and Safety Laboratory and Northern Gas Networks, The funding for the project was secured and provided by Ofgem, the UK Government’s Energy Regulator. In searching for viable sites to conduct the trial, Cadent scoured several universities to provide an effective simulation of what the trial may appear as, on a small scale, with Keele being unique, due to it having the only isolated network of any UK University. As a result, the Hydeploy project, along with the drive to attain a sustainable energy future for the campus conveys how an ethos such as this, is ‘built into the fabric of Keele University’.
Following the confirmation of the project, specialised infrastructure was implemented to transport hydrogen gas in a network of pipes beneath the University. This took the form of a hydrogen buffer tank, to store the injected gas connected to an industrial-scale electrolyser, to convert the hydrogen into an operational blend, with each costing around £1 million per individual unit, allowing the maintenance of the gas flow, and finally a step-down transformer, permitting the converted energy from the process to be released into buildings across campus, representing a sustainable electricity supply.
The project was also rolled out to help the local community adopt the blend, and transition to a more sustainable energy source. For this to be implemented, Cadent Gas Limited and Northern Gas Networks worked with a national testing facility for the hydrogen trials to take place on a community scale, before testing the blend in the homes of local residents. This took place in Stroud, Gloucestershire, as part of a 2-year pre-trial phase, which acted as an industry-testing pad as a simulation for what a roll-out might look like for businesses nationwide. This would unlock potential savings of £8 billion to professional customers of the blend and avoid 120 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 (Keele University, 2021) A range of boilers of different ages and manufacturers, adopting the 20% gas blend were stress-tested over prolonged periods, in assessing whether boilers dating back to the 1960’s and beyond would be able to take the blend, as the project eliminates the need for new appliances. Residents were not required to pay for the blend, and had their boiler serviced with these changes being integrated at no additional cost, following an agreement with England’s national energy providers.
In expanding HyDeploy to a national scale, which was the ultimate aim of the project with potential for international adoption, the UK Government had shown promise in a sustainable future for hydrogen networks. Summarising the necessity for hydrogen to become an integral part of the UK’s energy network, HyDeploy’s primary communications link, Jeremy Herbert remarked that ‘Hydrogen has become the ‘great hope’ for helping the UK transition to a zero-carbon economy’. In light of this optimism, a 500-page case study on HyDeploy’s effectiveness as an alternative to natural gas was drawn up, in order to prove that the scheme was reliable enough to be scaled up. Internationally, however, the use of offshore wind power could be used to generate hydrogen, at times when an excess of power has been stored, having been trialled under a Greenpeace operation in Germany. This can burn generated hydrogen, to produce electricity when levels of power are insufficient. Additionally, German infrastructure now runs on hydrogen, including the conversion of trains and public buses, doubling down on a sizeable portion of potential emissions, with some trains having already been converted and made operational.
Additionally, nations such as Australia and Japan have monumental plans for infrastructure involving green, blue and grey hydrogen, the latter of which comes from splitting hydrogen from natural gas, and combusting this. As carbon dioxide is still released during this process, however, carbon sequestration in ground deposits is vital, achieved through the use of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies, on an industrial scale. Most government plans for hydrogen are based around green hydrogen as the eventual target, with blue hydrogen as transition technology. Some other governments include blue hydrogen as part of their long-term clean energy plans (e.g Australia and the UK). (Barnes, 2020) To further cement the benefits of an international transition to hydrogen infrastructure, schemes such as HyDeploy have large margins of potential to generate profit for natural gas and energy industries, which can be reinvested into furthering sustainable energy production. However, the efficiency of electrolysers must increase dramatically, to be less energy-intensive, and for the security of rare earth elements within Earth’s environment to increase in producing these, in order to leverage widespread hydrogen rollouts.
The future of hydrogen alternatives to our present-day fossil fuel machines is looking to be a significant, positive change to our industry and our lives on the local scale. As a consequence, the resulting benefits are likely to transcend the atmospheric damage caused by fossil fuels, given enough time. This will allow for a more efficient system in providing energy nationally, whilst simultaneously fuelling an increasingly clean atmosphere, bringing the balance with the climate closer to a stable equilibrium.
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HyDeploy., (2021), About HyDeploy. Online. [Accessed — 03/02/2021] https://hydeploy.co.uk/
Keele University, Home. Online. [Accessed — 08/03/2021] https://www.keele.ac.uk/
Keele University., (2021), Positive Results from the UK’s First grid-injected Hydrogen Bilot based at Keele University, Online. [Accessed — 08/03/2021] https://www.keele.ac.uk/discover/news/2020/june/hydeploy-update/pilot-positive-results.php
Keele University., (2021), POLKA. Online. [Accessed — 22/02/2021] https://www.keele.ac.uk/sustainable-futures/ourchallengethemes/providingcleanenergyreducingcarbonemissions/polka/
Barnes, R., (2020), Should Blue Hydrogen Be Part of Our Green Plans?, Climate Conscious, Medium. Online. [Accessed — 28/02/2021] https://medium.com/climate-conscious/blue-hydrogen-and-ccus-828fa20feae8