Hydrogen heating trial treats us like guinea pigs – residents – BBC

"I wake up in the night thinking about it," Maria Morgan says. "We're guinea pigs."
Maria is on the front line of the UK's efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.
Her house in Whitby in Ellesmere Port, north-west England, is one of 2,000 homes earmarked to have its supply of natural gas turned off.
If the Whitby proposal is approved, pure hydrogen will flow through its pipes from 2025. Hydrogen's advantage is that unlike natural gas, it doesn't produce the climate-warming gas CO2 when burnt.
Homes currently account for about 17% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions and as part of efforts to fight climate change, the government is aiming to phase out natural gas boilers from 2035.
But with 23m homes currently connected to the gas grid, moving them to cleaner forms of energy will be a huge task.
In order to trial greener technologies Whitby, along with Redcar in the north-east of England, have been named as candidates to convert to hydrogen . One of them will be chosen next year and become the UK's first "hydrogen village".
But is hydrogen safe? The government and gas companies say it can be, even though hydrogen is both more leaky and combustible than natural gas.
It's also not clear how green the village will actually be. Though hydrogen can be made from water using renewable energy, more than 99% of the world's supply is currently made from fossil fuels, creating CO2 emissions.
While some Whitby residents welcome the proposal, others feel they're being forced to take part in a dangerous experiment. Sitting next to Maria on the sofa when the BBC visit is her friend Margaret Walsh.
"It's horrendous. The stress. I mean that is all that is being talked about in my house."
Stephen Lyth, who lives just round the corner, said he and his wife feel like "lab rats".
If the trial goes ahead, there will be no more natural gas in the Whitby "hydrogen village" area. Residents will have to choose between converting their homes to hydrogen or going electric with a heat pump, with all the new appliances provided free of charge.
Both the gas companies and the government say residents are worrying needlessly about safety. They say that though hydrogen is more explosive, additional measures will be in place making the risk similar to that of natural gas.
That doesn't wash with Tom Baxter, an expert in Chemical and Process Engineering and Visting Professor at the University of Strathclyde.
"Would you buy a car from a salesman who said, 'This car will crash more often but because of the safety features, we will be just as safe?" he asks. "You wouldn't do it."
For the last few months, representatives from British Gas and Cadent have been visiting homes in the area to service existing gas appliances for free, assess their readiness for hydrogen and address any concerns. If Whitby gets selected, residents will be supplied with hydrogen at the same price as natural gas for a two-year trial.
Some Whitby residents, like Phil Garnett, are supportive, excited by the prospect not just of new and free appliances, but also about doing something he sees as beneficial to the environment.
"We're trying to move towards a greener, cleaner energy to reduce the carbon emissions in the atmosphere," he says. "I'm definitely all for it."
Hydrogen is certainly cleaner and greener at the instant it burns. But how the hydrogen is made is critical, given how little is currently produced using renewable energy.
Using hydrogen made from renewable electricity to heat buildings is also much less efficient than simply using the electricity.
Dr Jan Rosenow, an energy expert and director of European programmes at the Regulatory Assistance Project, told the BBC that heating a home with this "green" hydrogen uses five or six times more electricity (to produce the hydrogen) than using the same renewable electricity to drive a heat pump.
"When you look at it from a sort of scientific perspective and a consumer perspective the evidence is pretty clear that it's not a good idea," he says.
Mr Rosenow sees the hydrogen trials as part of an attempt by gas suppliers and distributors to hold onto their market share as the UK moves away from using natural gas.
Both the Redcar and Whitby projects are currently in the consultation phase. A "Hydrogen Experience Centre" has been set up in Whitby to give residents a taste of what the future might hold.
Three appliances are on display. A hydrogen-ready boiler, which you could buy now, and a hydrogen cooker and fire which are both still at the prototype stage.
"These are like-for-like replacements for what people already know," says Marc Clarke, from the UK's biggest gas distributors Cadent. Cadent and British Gas are the main backers of the Whitby proposal.
"Customers like to cook on gas, they like to heat their homes with gas boilers," he says.
"Hydrogen uses very similar looking appliances, but it's just a different gas flowing through it."
Kate Grannell, another concerned resident, set up a Facebook page to help her neighbours get independent advice about hydrogen. She's also been taking queries directly to the gas companies.
"At the start we had about 140 questions," she says. "Just over eight weeks later we still haven't had answers to those questions."
The queries include: What happens after the two-year trial ends? Will they be returned to natural gas? What if hydrogen is more expensive? How might it impact house prices and could they lose out financially from taking part?
"We're not being asked if they can use my private home for an experiment," Ms Grannell says, tears welling in her eyes.
The question of consent is a complex one. In their instructions to the gas companies, the government has asked that they include in their proposals evidence of how they have engaged and consulted with residents. Cadent told the BBC they had commissioned independent surveys of residents' reactions.
But demands from Kate and others for a straight vote on the proposal have fallen on deaf ears.
"A vote won't be the real world," Mr Clarke from Cadent says. "We are all going to need to make this choice on a certain day to move to a different type of heating technology. This project is bringing that decision to life right now for Whitby, but it's coming for all of us in the near future."
The consultation period is expected to finish in March with the government making a decision on whether Whitby or Redcar switch to pure hydrogen later in the year.
Whichever gets the green light, it will be hard for residents to object further. Legislation currently passing through the British parliament would give gas distributors powers of entry into homes in order to enforce the transfer away from natural gas.
A government factsheet says this would only be used as a "last resort" and that those who don't want hydrogen should choose electric heating instead.
Follow Jonah on Twitter at @jonahfisherbbc
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