11 October 2022

Joanna Ferguson, Head of Market Services & Regulatory Compliance at Northern Gas Networks

With phase 2 of the HyDeploy project having recently drawn to a close, Joanna reflects on the knowledge and insights gained, and how the industry can take these learnings forward.

What is HyDeploy phase 2?

HyDeploy is a landmark project, highlighting how the gas network can carry a blend of hydrogen, with no effect on the customer’s gas supply. Hydrogen has a pivotal role to play in decarbonising our gas infrastructure. Practical and low cost, it doesn’t create carbon dioxide when used, and consumers do not have to alter cooking and heating appliances to use the blend.

The HyDeploy initiative has seen Northern Gas Networks, Cadent, the Health and Safety Executive, Keele University, ITM Power, and Progressive Energy all working closely together. Phase 1 of the project involved blending hydrogen and gas on part of the private gas network at the Keele University campus in Staffordshire. Phase 2, then, has focussed on supplying 668 consumers in Winlaton, a village in the Metropolitan Borough of Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.

This was the first ever trial to add a hydrogen blend of 20% into a public network, and has provided clear evidence of how the industry can move rapidly towards decarbonisation. Unlike a network supplying 100% hydrogen, which would require changes to be made to appliances, the 20% blend delivers a huge opportunity to make an impact fast.

The project covered a real variety of consumers, with sites including a church, school and community centre, as well as the full spectrum of domestic properties. Because there was no need to update the meter or appliances in a consumer’s home, a full range of domestic households could take advantage of this opportunity, no matter whether they were on a prepayment meter, in sublet flats, or the property was privately or council owned.


What key challenges arose during HyDeploy phase 2?

One of the distinct challenges we came across was around stakeholder engagement. It was absolutely crucial that we were able to speak to the right people at the right time, and provide them with the right information. Over 40 different gas suppliers were involved across the 668 properties taking part in the trial - a not insignificant number! There were very few industry parties that weren’t affected by it, or weren’t associated with one of the properties in the trial area, so managing this number of stakeholders was quite a task.

While existing industry processes were used to ensure information about the project was communicated as clearly as possible, we did face additional challenges when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the country went into lockdown, and steps such as the appropriate health and safety procedures needed to be determined, for example.


How did consumers respond?

Brilliantly! Customers were very accepting of our proposals around the trial. To make sure everyone was well-informed, we made sure customer care officers were available both before the trial started and once it was underway, with public drop-ins offered so consumers could have their questions answered whenever they needed.

Because hydrogen has a lower energy content than natural gas, an increased volume of gas is needed to pass through the meter to create the same usable energy. For this reason, Northern Gas Networks decided to make a voluntary payment to all customers affected via their supplier, typically in the form of credit on their bill. Therefore, we often found the biggest question consumers had was around making sure this payment was received.


Now the trial has finished, what operational lessons have been learned?

There have been lots of learnings, but first and foremost the project has been a huge success in proving a safety case in the use of blended hydrogen in a public network.

Through Xoserve’s interfaces, we have a well-established means of communicating with shippers and transporters. But it was how each gas supplier bills the end customer where we found one key learning. As previously highlighted, the sheer volume of gas suppliers involved was a challenge, and ensuring the voluntary payment is more clearly shown on a bill would save some hassle in the long run for these kinds of trials. While these queries, once identified, could be solved quite quickly, it’s an important area to consider to help better streamline processes and make them more efficient in the future.

Furthermore, no matter how many times we encouraged consumers to speak to one of our customer care officers about any potential issues, we learned that their gas supplier would still often be the first point of call. So, while we used existing industry processes to help communicate the project, and tried our very best to ensure we weren’t reinventing the wheel when getting the word out about phase 2 of HyDeploy, we still encountered a number of hiccups along the way.

As a result, it has only become more apparent just how critical it is to make the industry at large aware of what we’re doing. To address these concerns, and better implement these learnings going forward, we’re increasing our focus on industry communications, and these lessons will be put into practice when planning the UK’s first Hydrogen Village.


What were the key findings for consumers?

Ultimately, the most encouraging response has been that consumers did not notice any difference when using the hydrogen blend for cooking and heating. If anything, many found the lack of impact on their day-to-day lives underwhelming, but this just goes to show how the gas network can start to be decarbonised in a meaningful way, without any noticeable impact on the consumer.

This should be taken as a huge benefit, giving consumers the confidence and reassurance that mixing hydrogen into the gas network is a really positive step forward in the UK’s decarbonisation journey.


What is your proudest achievement of HyDeploy 2?

I’m really proud of how the industry worked together to make this project a success. If any problems were identified, we all came together to solve them, and all parties were always focussed on getting the right outcome for the customer.


What are the next steps?

We’re still assessing the wealth of data that’s been gained from this project, which is providing us with all kinds of insights that can be applied to industry projects, as well as enabling us to make recommendations to improve industry processes. We’re also exploring how else we can use this information, to provide additional insight into gas usage or help us shape consumers’ response to moving towards a hydrogen mix in the gas network.

Meanwhile, the HyDeploy programme is also currently looking at undertaking further trials. These will be centred on more industrial and commercial applications, to explore the impacts of blending hydrogen for bigger energy users. It’s important that we have this evidence, to help further accelerate the adoption of hydrogen on a large scale.

You can learn more about the HyDeploy 2 project here.

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