DeSmog

Gas Company in PR Offensive Ahead of Decision on Hydrogen Trial

Critics say the firm is attempting to buy goodwill as it bids to pilot a fuel widely considered unviable for home heating.
Phoebe Cooke headshot - credit Laura King Photography
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Fisherman's Huts at South Gare with the steelworks at Redcar in the distance. Credit: Andrew Ray / Alamy

A gas company has been accused of “greenwashing” in a North Yorkshire community ahead of a crunch decision on the UK’s first ‘hydrogen village’.

Northern Gas Networks (NGN) is bidding to host a two-year government-funded trial in Redcar, Teesside, to replace gas with ‘green’ hydrogen in around 2,000 homes. 

The company has said it is “excited” to be working in the community and has been “liaising with residents and businesses” to develop its plans.

But campaigners have raised concerns that the company is engaged in a “charm offensive” to win over residents and suppress concerns around the fuel, after NGN piled tens of thousands of pounds into local causes.

The gas company has sponsored a girl’s football team, awarded thousands to charitable causes, helped with community litter picking and set up a ‘hydrogen hub’ on the high street where residents are encouraged to discuss heating with employees of the firm.

Calvin Lawson, Friends of the Earth’s regional campaigns organiser in the North East of England, said NGN was using cynical tactics to win over local support in Redcar.

“It’s a massive PR campaign to ingratiate themselves into the community but without any real public debate or consultation on what they’ll do long-term,” he told DeSmog.

With the government planning to phase out new gas boilers from all UK homes by 2035, NGN claims that hydrogen made with renewables is a low-carbon and safe alternative to carbon-intensive fossil gas.

The UK needs to decarbonise home heating. Gas currently provides heating for around 85 percent of the UK’s homes, producing roughly 15 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

But while green hydrogen made with renewable energy is widely accepted as necessary for decarbonising heavy industry – where greenhouse gas emissions are harder to remove – it is not considered viable for heating homes. 

A major review of 36 studies found that not a single one advocated a major role for hydrogen in heating, finding that the fuel is inefficient, expensive and resource-intensive compared to other low-carbon options such as heat pumps.

In Redcar, NGN is bidding to run the trial, whereas gas company Cadent is hoping to run a similar trial in Ellesmere Port in Whitby, Cheshire. A backlash in Whitby over safety and consultation concerns resulted in the government announcing that no trial will go ahead without strong local support, and all eyes are now on Redcar.

Bids to run the trials closed last week. The winning trial will be selected later this year by the energy regulator Ofgem and the newly-formed Department for Energy Security and Net Zero later, with ministers set to use the chosen trial to inform its strategy on hydrogen heating.

Rowan McLaughlin, an environmental campaigner from Saltburn-by-the-Sea near Redcar, described the idea of using hydrogen in heating as “shocking”.

“I get that homes have to be decarbonised but this seems like mainly an excuse for gas companies to carry on using gas,” they said. The gas sector argues that hydrogen can use existing infrastructure such as pipelines, so less change is required for the fuel to be adopted.

“The trial would extend the use of gas boilers, a lot of houses are not going to be safe for hydrogen, and the money would be much better spent on heat pumps and other things that are more sustainable long-term,” McLaughlin added.

Redcar resident Steve Rudd said: “It’s all about stranded assets – if they don’t replace hydrogen with gas they won’t have anything left in the pipes.”

In contrast to Whitby, residents in Redcar have been told that they won’t be able to opt-out of the trial. In Whitby, the 2,000 residents in the proposed trial area would have the choice to continue using natural gas or switch to hydrogen for heating.

Consultation Concerns

NGN claims it has the support of the community after carrying out a survey last autumn which found that 76 percent of nearly 700 residents and landlords were in favour of the scheme.

However, the survey promoted controversial claims. Several explanatory videos promoted hydrogen in home heating as an “environmentally friendly” alternative to gas. While hydrogen doesn’t produce carbon emissions at the point of combustion, the energy-intensive process of creating hydrogen – produced by splitting water using electricity from renewables – is still highly carbon intensive.

One video embedded within the survey claimed that hydrogen is a clean-burning fuel with only water as a by-product. However, this is only true in certain contexts, namely when hydrogen is burnt in fuel cells. When hydrogen is combusted for heating, a 2021 paper found that it can create nitrogen oxides (NOx), an air pollutant that is “harmful in its own right and is a precursor to other pollutants of concern such as fine particulate matter and ozone”. 

The Redcar survey was conducted by Explain Market Research, a Newcastle-based company whose clients include major electricity and gas distributors National Grid, Cadent, Northern Power Grid, SGN, Wales and West Utilities, and UK Power Networks. All of these companies have advocated for the use of hydrogen in heating. 

Several residents told DeSmog they also felt the survey left no room for concerns to be raised over hydrogen’s safety, and that it was presented to them before they had the chance to learn more about the fuel.

“You had to answer a series of multiple choice questions; it was almost impossible to disprove or object to the idea of hydrogen,” Keith Pickett, a retired librarian, told DeSmog. 

‘Greenwashing’

NGN has used well-funded outreach efforts with Redcar’s 70,000 residents – engaging with sports teams, colleges and charities regularly over the past 10 months.

In October, the company launched a £20,000 fund to support social projects in the area. Melanie Taylor, head of stakeholder relations, said that NGN wanted to “lead from the front” and “increase our investment in the local area immediately”.

The company also advertised a game to “guess the items in a hydrogen car”, with the supplies donated to the local Redcar foodbank. NGN staff have led volunteer litter-picks and the firm has paid for tours to a prototype of hydrogen-powered homes in Gateshead, which are run by NGN, Cadent and the UK government.

“Giving money to local charities may be seen by some as commendable,” said resident Steve Rudd, “but it could also be seen as a charm offensive”. 

Rudd added he was “flabbergasted” that the company could not see the irony of donating to the local foodbank. “They are proposing to cut off our gas and replace it with a much more expensive product, likely to cause fuel poverty,” he said. Redcar is one of the 20 percent most deprived areas in England. 

NGN has stressed that replacing gas with hydrogen boilers would be free for customers living in the trial area, and would not impact them financially. However, residents have expressed concerns about what will happen when the trial ends in 2027, which is yet to be addressed by the company. 

NGN has also sponsored Redcar Town FC’s Under 13s girls football team, supplying the players with water bottles and a training kit emblazoned with the lettering and logo of ‘Redcar Hydrogen Network with Northern Gas Networks’. The team wrote on Facebook that they were “extremely grateful” for the training gear.

Redcar and Cleveland College, which is taking part in the hydrogen scheme, has likewise been targeted by NGN. A Facebook group launched by the company for the trial features a picture of the headteacher smiling on a visit to the Gateshead trial home.

Pickett, who lives in one of the impacted trial areas, said the actions amounted to “greenwash”.

“They are puffing up their image,” he said. “They are saying: ‘we are the good guys, aren’t we nice?’”

A NGN spokesperson said the group aims to make “a positive impact in our region” and to “provide specific community support when we’re working in an area”. 

“We wanted to make sure Redcar received the investment it deserves,” they added.

However, Andrew Simms, co-director at New Weather Institute, an interdisciplinary climate think tank, said the company was “more intent on pushing options that serve their own self interest rather than serving communities and doing the best thing for the climate emergency.

“This doesn’t just mean that residents in Yorkshire could get a bad deal – anyone who knows anything about heating homes knows that hydrogen is a terrible choice, complex and costly, and slows down the urgent task of the fast, affordable and effective retrofitting of homes. 

“That’s bad for tackling fuel poverty and bad for the climate,” he said.

Political Pressure

Hydrogen enjoys cross-party support in Parliament, and has been promoted at both Labour and Conservative party conferences in recent years. 

In December, the government doubled its hydrogen commitment, promising 10GW of low carbon hydrogen by 2030. In late March, the UK’s ‘hydrogen champion’ Jane Toogood – who is also the chief executive of a chemicals company that markets hydrogen technologies – urged ministers to back the blending of hydrogen into the UK gas network by the end of this year, as long as the technology can be proved to be safe. 

Despite signs that the government is keen to progress hydrogen in home heating, its approach has remained vague. To date it has backed just a number of small-scale trials.

The proposed experiment in Redcar has attracted strong political support in Teesside. Redcar and Cleveland Conservative MP Jacob Young was the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hydrogen from February 2020 until October 2022 and has personally championed the use of hydrogen in heating. Dubbing Teesside “the epicentre for hydrogen technology in the UK”, he has been working with NGN to drum up enthusiasm for the Redcar trial, and in November launched its new ‘hydrogen hub’. 

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has also been vocal in his support, describing the Redcar trial as a “world-leading, first of its kind research programme”. 

Redcar has been shortlisted in part due to its proximity to the East Coast industrial cluster, which is set to produce green and blue hydrogen equivalent to 15 percent of the government’s 2030 hydrogen target, and is being heavily supported by BP.

The fossil fuel company has said it is decarbonising “the UK’s biggest industrial cluster” in Teesside by investing in blue and green hydrogen hubs, partnering with NGN, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council, and Tees Valley Combined Authority.

Signed in 2021, the memorandum of understanding between BP and NGN pledges that the pair will work on “a number of studies to ensure that the hydrogen production facility is ideally placed to meet the demands of industrial and domestic consumers in the Teesside area”. 

Hydrogen is known as ‘green’ when produced with renewable energy such as wind or solar power, while blue hydrogen uses carbon capture to store the emissions from hydrogen made with fossil gas, and is not considered renewable.

NGN has said that although it will use ‘predominantly’ green hydrogen, it cannot rule out using other, more polluting sources of hydrogen “from time to time”.

Though they will not be able to opt out of the trial, if Redcar is selected, residents have been told they can choose between hydrogen for heating or an electrical alternative. However, many have said they have so far received scant information about the finances and logistics of opting for a heat pump, an electrically powered device which absorbs heat from the air, ground or water around a building.

Experts say that using heat pumps would be much more environmentally friendly than hydrogen and provide greater economic benefits to residents. In a November 2022 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) concluded that replacing gas with heat pumps will cost less, and will be more energy efficient than hydrogen and biomass alternatives.

“There is overwhelming evidence now that heat pumps and district heating offer the most efficient and cheapest options to decarbonise home heating,” said Jan Rosenow, director of the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), a nonprofit grouping of clean transition experts, who authored the recent review of hydrogen studies.

He pointed to recent trials that show heat pumps to be three and a half times more efficient than gas and hydrogen boilers. 

“Data from around the world shows that heat pumps work well in existing buildings and also when it is cold,” he said. “It is now all about scaling heat pumps and district heating together with energy efficiency upgrades of homes. This will require clear policy direction.”

‘One-sided’

Alongside localised industry efforts in Redcar and Whitby, an online industry-funded campaign is also calling on the government to back hydrogen in heating.

‘Hello Hydrogen’, a group of network distributors and manufacturers including Cadent and Northern Gas Networks, launched in October last year. The website advertises ‘hydrogen ready’ zero carbon boilers from Worcester Bosch, and references the hydrogen homes and villages on trial.

The campaign is headed by Angela Needle, strategy director at Cadent and vice president of Hydrogen UK, a trade association for hydrogen deployment. Though the hydrogen village trial is for 100 percent green hydrogen, this campaign is targeted at blending just 20 percent of hydrogen into the gas grid.

The group has also placed paid-for adverts on Facebook and Instagram, some of which have made the claim – disputed by some climate experts – that “Hydrogen for home heating will help tackle climate change”. 

In Redcar, residents have written to local councillors to hold a public debate and vote on the hydrogen trial, following a similar move in Whitby. But campaigners fear local council elections in May will stall the political response.

“There hasn’t been any real opposition to it in the region from mayor to MP through to council,” Calvin Lawson, from Friends of the Earth, told DeSmog. “They’ve just been allowed to run rough-shod with their ideas with government funding to go and implement this, without any checks and balances.

“There’s been no comprehensive consultation, and we want to see that take place. We want to see a public debate where both sides can have their say. It’s been very one-sided, we’ve just been told what’s happening. If anyone’s worried, they’re being offered gas appliances, sports sponsorship and so on. It’s not right.”

A government spokesperson told DeSmog: “No trials will take place where there isn’t strong local support and until all necessary safety assessments have been successfully carried out. 

“Gas network operators will need to demonstrate evidence of substantial local support, measured by an independent external source such as a local council,” they added. “This will be a critical factor in the final selection of the trial location, with the rights of consumers engaged in the project to be protected before, during and after.”

Phoebe Cooke headshot - credit Laura King Photography
Phoebe joined DeSmog in 2020. She is currently co-deputy editor and was previously the organisation's Senior Reporter.

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