“I wake up in the middle of the night and think about it,” says Maria Morgan. “We’re the test subjects.”
Maria is at the front of the UK’s fight against climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Her house in Ellesmere Port, north-west England, near Whitby, is one of 2,000 that will have their natural gas supply cut off.
If the plan for Whitby goes through, pure hydrogen will flow through its pipes starting in 2025. Hydrogen is better than natural gas because when it is burned, it doesn’t give off CO2, which is a gas that makes the climate warmer.
About 17% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from homes. To help fight climate change, the government wants to get rid of natural gas boilers by the year 2035.
But moving the 23 million homes that are currently connected to the gas grid to cleaner energy sources will be a huge job.
Whitby and Redcar, both in the north-east of England, have been chosen to switch to hydrogen so that greener technologies can be tried out. Next year, one of them will be chosen to be the first “hydrogen village” in the UK.
But is hydrogen safe? Even though hydrogen is more likely to leak and catch fire than natural gas, the government and gas companies say it can be done.
Also, it’s not clear how green the village will be. Even though renewable energy can be used to make hydrogen from water, more than 99% of the world’s supply is currently made from fossil fuels, which release CO2.
Some people in Whitby like the idea, but others think they are being forced to take part in a risky experiment. When the BBC comes, Maria’s friend Margaret Walsh sits on the sofa next to her.
“It’s terrible. The tension. I mean, that’s all anyone in my house talks about.”
Stephen Lyth, who lives just around the corner, said that he and his wife feel like “lab rats.”
If the trial goes forward, there will no longer be any natural gas in the “hydrogen village” area of Whitby. Residents will have to decide whether to convert to hydrogen or go electric with a heat pump. All the new appliances will be given to them for free.
Gas companies and the government both say that people are worrying too much about safety. They say that even though hydrogen is more explosive than natural gas, extra precautions will be taken to make the risk about the same as with natural gas.
Tom Baxter, a Chemical and Process Engineering expert and Visiting Professor at the University of Strathclyde, doesn’t agree with that.
“Would you buy a car from a salesman who told you, ‘This car will crash more often, but we’ll be just as safe because of the safety features?'” he asks. “You’d never do it.”
Representatives from British Gas and Cadent have been going to homes in the area for the past few months to service gas appliances for free, see if they are ready for hydrogen, and answer any questions. If Whitby is chosen, residents will get hydrogen for the same price as natural gas for a trial period of two years.
Some people in Whitby, like Phil Garnett, are in favour. He is excited not only about getting new appliances for free, but also about doing something he thinks is good for the environment.
He says, “We’re trying to switch to greener, cleaner energy to cut down on carbon emissions in the air.” “I’m all in favour of it.”