Hydrogen – the good, the bad and the future

We’ve heard about hydrogen and its potential to be used as an alternative energy source, but why is it only now being taken seriously? As the world recognises the urgency to shift to renewable energy to meet net zero goals, is this the time for hydrogen to be truly utilised? In this podcast episode, we explore all things hydrogen – the good, the bad and the future of the most abundant element in the universe. How will it impact our everyday lives; where is it being used currently; what myths need busting, and most importantly do the benefits outweigh the risks?

Listen to our guests Natalie Sauber, Future Mobility Director at Arcadis, William Rowe, CEO and Founder of Octopus Hydrogen and Mark Danter, Senior Strategy Manager at Northern Gas Networks discuss hydrogen and the challenges that lie ahead.

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Emma Nelson [00:00:15] Hello and welcome to Long Story Short, the Future Cities Podcast from Arcadis. I'm Emma Nelson. And today we say hi to hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe. We'll find out what it is and how it's produced.

Mark Danter [00:00:30] The three main colours that we talked about are grey, blue and green.

Emma Nelson [00:00:35] We'll explore its uses and whether it's key to powering our future.

Natalie Sauber [00:00:40] We see that hydrogen is essential to meeting Britain's net zero carbon goals by 2050.

Emma Nelson [00:00:46] But we'll also ask whether it really is the green solution to all our energy problems.

William Rowe [00:00:52] So you could argue fundamentally in the first instance, hydrogen is a decarbonisation problem, not a solution.

Emma Nelson [00:00:59] That's all ahead on Long Story Short, the Future Cities podcast from Arcadis. Climate change has been pushing us towards finding new green ways of heating our homes, powering our cars and buses, and fuelling our aircraft through the skies. And recently, more shocks have piled on the pressure. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has renewed our focus on fossil fuel and the cost of living has left many struggling to make ends meet. But are we all missing a trick? Hydrogen has been called the green oil of the 21st century with enormous potential to replace the fossil fuels we are so dependent on. Well, I'm delighted to say that to talk about what hydrogen can and cannot do, I'm joined around the table today by.

Natalie Sauber [00:01:45] Natalie Sauber, Director at Arcadis responsible for all things future mobility and hydrogen plays a huge part of that.

Mark Danter [00:01:52] Mark Danter, Northern Gas networks looking at repurposing the gas network for hydrogen.

William Rowe [00:01:57] William Rowe, CEO and founder of Octopus Hydrogen. We're a green hydrogen producer in the UK.

Emma Nelson [00:02:01] Thank you very much indeed for joining us. Now, who is going to start off by explaining to us exactly what hydrogen is? Maybe, Natalie, you would quite like to have a go.

Natalie Sauber [00:02:11] So hydrogen, really, if we bring it down to the crookes as a gas, that is the lightest and commonest element in the universe.

Emma Nelson [00:02:19] Nice and neat, Natalie, but when we talk about it in terms of how it's produced, it gets a bit more complicated, doesn't it, Mark? The hydrogen is classified in colours according to the way it's manufactured and made.

Mark Danter [00:02:32] The three main colours that it talks about a grey, blue and green. Grey hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, natural gas with the carbon emitting into the atmosphere, which is not not great. Blue hydrogen is similar to similar use from natural gas, but this time the carbon is captured and either stored for long periods of time or reused. And then you've got green hydrogen, which is actually generated from green energy sources. So that is the ultimate goal.

Emma Nelson [00:03:05] Will, do we often mistake hydrogen for being the fuel itself because it's not, is it?

William Rowe [00:03:12] It's not a source of energy. It's an energy carrier. So green hydrogen, the energy source was the wind or the sun and then the hydrogen is just a way of moving around more conveniently. You've got a premise, any assumption you're going to use around hydrogen around that fundamental fact. So we're looking at a green future, really. If, you know, hydrogen's success is derived around the success of wind and solar being cheaper, which they will continue to get. It's also worth noting that we don't have any blue hydrogen projects in the world yet. The 97% of the world's hydrogen is grey hydrogen today.

Emma Nelson [00:03:43] And Mark, what does the colour classification mean in terms of the way that hydrogen is used?

Mark Danter [00:03:50] The colour doesn't actually matter what it's used for, it's just the way it's produced.

Emma Nelson [00:03:54] So we know how it's produced. So how do we move it around?

Mark Danter [00:03:58] At the moment, the gas infrastructure isn't capable of moving hydrogen because at the moment it transports natural gas. We can't transport both of at the same time.

Emma Nelson [00:04:08] Why not?

Mark Danter [00:04:10] Because it'll mix together and you'll end up with a blend. There is potential to have a blend in the future. And we are doing a trial up in a place called Winlaton at the moment, a project called HyDeploy, where we're looking at blending up to 20% in the gas network and trialling that to see if that's feasible.

Emma Nelson [00:04:30] So it's taken a little bit of explanation to lay out what hydrogen is, how it's produced, how you transport it. So this is quite a complicated set up that we're talking about here, but it has been described as the green oil of the 21st century. Natalie, where do you see hydrogen's potential?

Natalie Sauber [00:04:50] We see that hydrogen is essential to meeting Britain's net zero carbon goals by 2050. It's not solely responsible for it, but it's definitely amongst many other things, whether that's renewable energy, electricity, solar, wind, it's part of it.

William Rowe [00:05:07] I was going to say, I think it's worth noting so of the hydrogen that's used today. So we use something globally. It's about 80. Million tons of hydrogen a year. Most of it today is grey or almost all of it, and most of it is used in fundamentally two processes refined into hydrogenation of crude oil. So i.e. you put hydrogen into oil to get different products, whether that be, jet fuel. And then the second is ammonia production for fertiliser. So you could argue fundamentally in the first instance, hydrogen is a decarbonisation problem, not a solution because hydrogen being produced through natural gas is a big problem. So one of the most important things to do is find a solution, a green solution to some of those problems. And then for me, after you solve that first problem of we use lots of hydrogen and we need a green solution to that, then the next thing is, okay, what else could we use hydrogen for.

Emma Nelson [00:05:59] Hydrogen then isn't a perfect solution.

Mark Danter [00:06:02] It's going to be a hybrid solution. And exactly what Natalie says, you know, it will be the right solutions for the right course. But it's just how we go about that. So people are used to using natural gas for their heat and cooking, It's a convenience factor. So we are in terms of the gas networks, we're looking at ways in which we can convert the existing infrastructure to transport hydrogen.

Emma Nelson [00:06:36] And you're with Long Story Short, the Future Cities podcast from Arcadis. Today I'm joined around the studio table by Natalie Sauber from Arcadis. Will Rowe, who's from Octopus Hydrogen. And Mark Danter, who's from Northern Gas Networks. Let's move now to what hydrogen is used for. And let's begin with a prime candidate, that of transport. What kind of vehicles will make good candidates to be powered by hydrogen? We already see some buses on our streets powered by it. But will it be useful for lots of other things? Are we talking about something as small as a scooter, for example? Will?

William Rowe [00:07:12] So scooters are, they're light. You don't go a particular long way and you don't do it that often, i.e Your're not on a scooter 24 hours a day, typically. I mean, you would probably fall off through tiredness, so it's not going to happen. Whereas hydrogen is really sensible, or at least one of the options for things where you need to move a lot of weight, you need to do it a lot. So you need fast refuelling times or you. Yes, it's all time and weight. That's the key things about hydrogen as values, you know, versus electrification.

Emma Nelson [00:07:42] So what are we talking about? Where I mean, working within your company at the moment, where are you trying to place hydrogen?

William Rowe [00:07:49] So in the UK specifically, we're looking at 44 tonne trucks, so the heavy end of the trucks. So realistically, I think it's accepted that battery electric longer range trucks across Europe is not going to be that feasible a solution mainly because of grid issues with charging as much as it is the sort of range and payload of the vehicles.

Emma Nelson [00:08:07] And you've nodded just then, Natalie, when I said, look, transport, what did what did you think of?

Natalie Sauber [00:08:12] I definitely agree with will anything above 3.5 tonnes that makes sense.

Emma Nelson [00:08:17] What does 3.5 tonnes look like?

Natalie Sauber [00:08:18] Think of trucks, think of heavy goods vehicles, the trucks that move our goods around and that it would make sense to for all the reasons that were mentioned in terms of payload, in terms of range and obviously rail as well, especially here in the UK. We need another solution for that and that's not just in the UK, that's also across other countries. We're working together with Clara Energy in Australia where we are working on an inland rail project to use hydrogen trains across the entire Australia network. So that's a really, really big thing. It's already happening in Germany, it's already happening in in the Netherlands as well. So there's huge potential for hydrogen in the rail sector.

William Rowe [00:08:58] Rail is a really intersting one because if you think about it right now, people, we drive too much. We don't use public transport enough. But if it ends up in the next 5 to 10 years, everyone's got an EV or 20 years and then you've got diesel trains as the alternative people through virtue will not get on the diesel train. So we have to have a green alternative quite quickly for rail.

Emma Nelson [00:09:19] And wider transport too. Will, aviation is an exciting area when it comes to hydrogen, isn't it? What's the potential here?

William Rowe [00:09:26] I think most of your flights across Europe will be zero emission by 2040. I think it's definitely feasible, but I think long haul is really challenging, but anything under 4 hours is pretty feasible.

Emma Nelson [00:09:36] Natalie, Hydrogen is playing a big part in the development of a project in the north of the UK, isn't it? They're developing all areas of low carbon air travel.

Natalie Sauber [00:09:45] Up in Scotland we are developing the infrastructure of a sustainable test airport and within that there are three different types of aircraft, including electric, hydrogen or E fuels which will be tested.

Emma Nelson [00:10:04] So let's move on to the domestic uses of hydrogen. Mark, tell us what's happening with hydrogen in the areas of heating and powering our homes. First, we need to establish that actually, we need a lot more of hydrogen to make things happen, don't we?

Mark Danter [00:10:18] It's about a third of the energy value of natural gas. So we need more of it. We need to move it around so that you've got three times as much hydrogen needs to be moved about. So the hybrid solution of having an integrated, you know, some people being on heat pumps, some people will be in on hydrogen, would actually solve some of our issues.

Emma Nelson [00:10:40] And what is the appetite for this?

Mark Danter [00:10:43] We've got two experimental houses up at Low Thornley where we've had the houses built. We have them running on hydrogen. So we've got hydrogen boilers in each of the houses. We've got cooking facilities as well as heating and we experience a lot of interest in those houses. We book appointments for people to come and see and we probably book two or three months in advance.

Emma Nelson [00:11:06] It is popular, isn't it? And there is a bigger issue here, isn't there, Natalie, when it comes to the urgency of making sure our houses are greener. Are you seeing more demand from the clients that Arcadis works with?

Natalie Sauber [00:11:19] We cannot buy gas boilers past 2025. So in terms of, you know, your point around, is there going to be demand for it, there has to be a demand for an alternative solution. And that's what we're doing with Camden. We are basically taking that to the industry and working with innovative councils who are really, really keen to have a solution in place tomorrow.

Emma Nelson [00:11:39] What exactly are you doing in these homes in Camden?

Natalie Sauber [00:11:41] Basically, we're going for site evaluations and we're seeing which of the housing stocks so which of the social housing would benefit and work with a hydrogen boiler and could also afford the infrastructure that's needed to get the hydrogen from A to B in that. And then once that's approved, we're then basically recommending the type of gas and the type of hydrogen bar that that should go in there.

Emma Nelson [00:12:01] So this is the practical. Absolutely. To how it works in our homes. Just explain to me a little bit more Mark about the will and investment when it comes to this, because to transform our power infrastructure, the way that you are describing requires an awful lot of time, an awful lot of money and a lot of patience and goodwill.

Mark Danter [00:12:22] It does. It kind of goes back to conversion back in the sixties and early seventies. You know, we did similar sort of think of the the gas net then from towns gas to natural gas, you know, that took 10/11 years. It's likely to take a similar amount of time to convert the gas network. In terms of investment earlier this year, one investment from Phase and Ofgem to look at a village sized trial. So the site up at Redcar we are looking at the design phase of repurposing the gas network but also surveying the properties to convert about 2000 meter points. So that's a combination of about 1800 homes. So that's aiming to have the village running on hydrant by 2025. The ambition for government, which is set out in the ten point plan, is to have a town trial running by 2030.

Emma Nelson [00:13:17] And you're coming into this as well, aren't you, with octopus, hydrogen, you starting with a brand new clean slate here.

William Rowe [00:13:23] We are indeed, but we are very much not looking at hydrogen, the domestic heat. So the fundamental reason is so we don't see that the transition is simple as in how do you do it? And B the cost will be materially more for most people. So a heat pump will heat a home for the similar cost to it is today of a gas boiler with gas prices as they were a year ago. Hydrogen is going to be two, three, four times more. And I just don't think we should be using bill payers money to basically say to them, you will be paying four times more for your heat for the rest of it, for forever because that's the reality of it.

Mark Danter [00:14:00] Do you not think that demand drives innovation?

William Rowe [00:14:04] Well, green hydrogen. Best case scenario gets it at circa $1.50 a kilo. For it to compete with natural gas price It needs to be at $0.50 a kilo. So that's a three times increase. Full stop. Fundamentally, no. You know, I don't think it can get there.

Emma Nelson [00:14:20] So hydrogen in its domestic use is something still to be debated. And debate.

Mark Danter [00:14:25] Big debate. It is the big debate.

William Rowe [00:14:27] I think the key thing is it's a big debate across industry. You've got, you know, energy companies such as Octopus, OVO, EDF, typically the electricity related guys really pushing against hydrogen heat. And then you've got the oil and gas majors and the gas networks pushing for it. And I don't think it'll come down to the biggest lobbying budget. I think fundamentally the science will win in the long term.

Emma Nelson [00:14:47] The science and also the willingness, arguably, Natalie, with the clients that Arcadis work with who make that decision as to whether hydrogen is something that they really want to go down in terms of a path.

Natalie Sauber [00:14:59] Yes, I think there's going to be some council, some areas, some countries who are very strongly going to push towards a hydrogen solution and others who are going to take a slightly alternative path. And that depends on a variety of different reasons in terms of whether the cost and the technology are measuring up to that, as well as in terms of what alternatives are there and if they're going to be cheaper.

Emma Nelson [00:15:22] So let's look ahead. When are we going to see hydrogen as a main accepted form of energy?

Mark Danter [00:15:28] We're looking at the village size trial for 2025, town by 2030. But the the discussion point after that is once that town pilot has been achieved, then looking at rolling out across the country. So, you know, early 2030s is probably when you're gonna start seeing parts of network converted to hydrogen.

Emma Nelson [00:15:51] And how hopeful are you that this will happen?

Mark Danter [00:15:54] At the end of the day, it's not our decision as networks. We can't just convert the network. It's a policy decision. It's going to be made in 2026, predominantly for whether we have hygiene for heating in the homes. But whatever happens as a network, we believe that hydrogen is going to be moved about because it's the cheapest form of transporting hydrogen.

Emma Nelson [00:16:15] How about you, Natalie? I'm just looking at when we are going to see hydrogen as a main, accepted form of energy. When can you see that happening?

Natalie Sauber [00:16:25] We have a big looming deadline, which is net zero carbon by 2050. That's going to accelerate a lot of the technology and innovation and the need for us to go green at a very high speed. I think there's going to be quite a lot of need for both public and private sectors to work together and to agree in terms of where hydrogen makes the most sense across the different industries.

Emma Nelson [00:16:48] And you at Arcadis are pushing with the hydrogen pledge in order to try and speed this whole process up.

Natalie Sauber [00:16:53] Yes, indeed. So we've already talked about a number of projects, exciting projects that we're working on. But of course, we're also working together with the World Business Council for sustainable development. And here we are not only working with them, but we're also developing policies to further the hydrogen use across the different industries.

Emma Nelson [00:17:10] Finally, a tip from you all or a bit of advice. If you had one thing to say to industry, to government, to developers, to the private and public sector about something that you should do positively to do with hydrogen, what might it be? Will?

William Rowe [00:17:28] It's clear to me that any strategy, if there's a net importer of natural gas to go down to blue hydrogen route is madness because you're effectively continuing to compound your problems.

Emma Nelson [00:17:38] In what way?

William Rowe [00:17:39] Well, you have to import the gas to make the blue hydrogen. But for us as a net importer of gas, it's just crazy. I just don't understand how you'd ever have a blue hydrogen strategy. It has to be green.

Emma Nelson [00:17:49] Okay. Have a green hydrogen strategy.

William Rowe [00:17:51] We actually do have one. It's just there's also a lot of blue. Is the problem.

Emma Nelson [00:17:55] More green and blue?

William Rowe [00:17:56] But only green.

Emma Nelson [00:17:57] Only green. Only green. Hydrogen. How about you Mark?

Mark Danter [00:18:02] For us in the gas industry, it would be requesting a clear policy. You know, we're working towards that decision in 2026, but we're still not sure, the board of manufacturers, for instance, they won't commit to anything at the moment in terms hydrogen ready boilers. We just need a clear policy as soon as possible.

Emma Nelson [00:18:20] So your message is government, please hurry up. Excellent. Natalie, finally, what's your tip or call to action?

Emma Nelson [00:18:27] I think from an industry perspective, we would love to see that people stop working in silos and stop thinking that they've basically figured it out, whether it's green, whether that's blue, whether that's any of the other colours and really agree in terms of where does it make sense.

Emma Nelson [00:18:41] And that brings us to the end of today's show. My thanks to Natalie Sauber from Arcadis, Will Rowe from Octopus Hydrogen, and Mark Danter from Northern Gas Networks. And thank you very much for joining me. If you enjoyed that, then make sure you subscribe and you'll find fresh podcasts all to do with the future of our cities, our communities and their recovery. Popping up regularly at Arcadis.com, you've been with Long Story Short, the Future Cities podcast from Arcadis. I'm Emma Nelson. Goodbye and thank you for listening.

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