Written by Reece Emmit, External Relations Manager at Wales & West Utilities. 

June Monthly Briefing: Wales & West Utilities

 Energy hasn’t been far from the front pages in recent months. In the UK we face a number of interconnected challenges, not least on the cost of energy, which for many has risen by up to 50% in the last 12 months. And while the immediate security of our energy supplies – something we long took for granted, has been cast into sharp relief by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we cannot lose sight of the short and long-term implications of climate change for the UK and the wider world. In early 2022, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that ‘time was running out’ to reverse climate change, with around 40% of the world’s population ‘highly vulnerable’ to its impacts.

The UK took early action on reducing our contribution to global warming and climate change in 2019. We were the first country to sign a pledge to Net Zero into law – with a 2050 target for reducing our carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions to ‘Net Zero’ – that is when the amount added to the atmosphere is no more than the amount taken away. This builds on already significant reductions since 1990. While the economy has grown by nearly 80%, territorial greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 45%, thanks to greener electricity supplies and cleaner industrial processes.

Since 2019, many of us in the energy sector had been urging for more clarity from the Government – and despite the disruption of the pandemic, we have not seen a shortage of policy announcements. The Prime Minister’s 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution and the Energy White Paper set out the steps we’ll take as a country to meet the challenging emissions targets, while The Heat and Building Strategy made clear that heat pumps, heat networks and hydrogen could play pivotal roles in helping homes across the UK go green. The recent Energy Security Strategy underlined this, with ambitious commitments to produce up to 10GW of hydrogen by 2030 – double the previous target – with the UK government endorsing the zero-carbon fuel as a ‘frictionless way to decarbonise our lives.’

Hydrogen can be used in the place of natural gas in our homes and businesses as it can create energy in the same way, but it does not produce carbon dioxide, making it a more environmentally friendly source of energy.

At Wales & West Utilities, we’re a gas network – we look after the pipes that transport gas to homes and businesses across Wales and South West England. To put that into some context, over 80% of homes in the UK currently depend on natural gas for heating and cooking, with over 40% of electricity generated by gas-fired power stations too. Heavy industry – from steel to ceramics, relies on gas to generate heat too. If the UK is to decarbonise – that must change.

And we are committed to playing our part. The most visible is our work in communities right across Wales and the South West. Behind yellow barriers, you’ll see our hardworking engineers working with spools of yellow pipe that are disappearing into the ground. These projects are replacing old gas pipes – many over 100 years old, with new, more efficient alternatives that are not only keeping natural gas flowing safely to homes and businesses today, but also can be converted to transport green gas like hydrogen and biomethane. At the start of 2022, all five of Britain’s gas networks published a Hydrogen Blending Delivery Plan, which sets out how we’ll meet the UK Governments target to blend up to be ready to deliver 20% hydrogen to homes and businesses across the country from 2023, as a replacement for up to fifth of the natural gas currently used.

The South West, with its long history of innovation and engineering, is leading the way. In late 2021, we received the green light from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) to inject gas containing up to 1% hydrogen into our gas network in Swindon. This will reduce the carbon emissions by up to 5,000 tonnes for almost 2,500 local homes immediately, without any impact on our customers or their appliances

As the injection of hydrogen in Swindon and other research demonstrates, the existing gas network can transport hydrogen safely, and fitting hydrogen appliances – particularly into homes, is relatively straightforward. Hydrogen appliances like boilers and cookers could fit in the space currently taken up by their natural gas equivalents and work in much the same way – without the need for new radiators or hot water systems, unlike some of the alternatives on offer. By 2025, as part of a broader programme of research and development supported by the UK Government, at least one village in the north of England will see approximately 2000 homes converted to hydrogen. This will help the UK Government make a policy decision – currently expected in 2026 – on the role that hydrogen will play in heating homes and businesses in the future.

The South West is the spiritual home of the gas industry – with William Murdoch first using it to light his home in Redruth in the 1790s. Looking forward, the area will be just as prominent as hydrogen becomes the fuel of the future. The area has a unique cluster of business, energy and industrial expertise, and Hydrogen South West, launching in June, brings them together to develop a hydrogen ecosystem in the region, accelerating the decarbonisation of homes, businesses and transport.

While there is still a long way to go until we get to Net Zero – a future path is becoming clear. Industry, including aerospace, paper mills and chemicals will anchor hydrogen in the South West, while nearby villages, towns and cities are switched over through the 2030s, with disruption to communities and households kept to a minimum.

On our part, we are keen to work with businesses and local authorities to discuss how we can share our expertise, and how you can use our Energy Systems Toolkit to support your energy planning, no matter where you are in strategy or plan development – ranging from initial capability building, scoping and initial development – to much later stages like supporting with stakeholder engagement and public consultation. You can contact us by email on engagement@wwutilities.co.uk.