“I wake up at night thinking about it,” says Maria Morgan. “We are guinea pigs.”
Maria is at the forefront of the UK’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change.
His house in Whitby, in Ellesmere Harbour, in northwest England, is one of 2,000 homes set aside to shut down its gas supply.
If the Whitby proposal is approved, pure hydrogen will flow through its pipes by 2025. The advantage of hydrogen is that, unlike natural gas, it does not produce CO2, the gas that warms the climate when burned.
Homes currently account for around 17% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and as part of efforts to combat climate change, the government aims to phase out natural gas boilers by 2035.
But with 23 million homes currently connected to the gas grid, moving them to cleaner forms of energy will be a huge task.
To try greener technologies, Whitby has been named as a candidate to convert it to hydrogen, along with Redcar in north-east England. One of these will be chosen next year and will be Britain’s first “hydrogen village”.
But is hydrogen safe? The government and gas companies say it can be, although hydrogen is both more leaky and flammable than natural gas.
It is also unclear how green the village will actually be. Although hydrogen can be produced from water using renewable energy, currently more than 99% of the world’s supply is made from fossil fuels, resulting in CO2 emissions.
While some Whitby residents welcome the offer, others feel they’ve been forced to take part in a dangerous experiment. Her friend Margaret Walsh, sitting next to Maria on the couch during her BBC visit.
“Horrible. Stress. So that’s all that’s talked about in my house.”
Stephen Lyth, sitting just around the corner, said he and his wife felt like “lab rats.”
If the trial continues, 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 unnecessarily concerned about safety. They say that while hydrogen is more explosive, additional measures will be taken that make the risk similar to that of natural gas.
That doesn’t fit Professor Tom Baxter, a hydrogen expert at the University of Strathclyde.
“Would you buy a car from a seller who said, ‘This car will crash more often, but we will be just as safe because of the safety features’?” He asks. “You won’t.”
Over the past few months, representatives from British Gas and Cadent have been visiting homes in the area to service existing gas appliances free of charge, assess their hydrogen readiness and address concerns. If Whitby is elected, residents will be provided with hydrogen for a two-year trial at the same price as natural gas.
Some Whitby residents, such as Phil Garnett, are excited and supportive of not only new and free devices, but also the prospect of doing something they see as environmentally beneficial.
“We’re trying to move towards a greener, cleaner energy to reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere,” he says. “I totally agree with that.”
How green is hydrogen?
As soon as hydrogen is burned, it is definitely cleaner and greener. But given how little is currently produced using renewable energy, how hydrogen is made is critical.
Using hydrogen from renewable electricity to heat buildings is far less efficient than using electricity alone.
Dr Jan Rosenow, an energy expert and director of European programs at the Regulatory Assistance Project, told the BBC that heating a house with this “green” hydrogen uses five or six times more electricity than using the same renewable electricity (to produce hydrogen). to drive a heat pump.
“When you look at it from a kind of scientific and 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 gas suppliers and distributors’ attempts to retain market share as the UK moves away from using natural gas.
Both the Redcar and Whitby projects are currently in consultation. A “Hydrogen Experience Center” has been set up in Whitby to give residents a taste of what the future holds.
Three devices are on display. A hydrogen-ready boiler you can buy now, and a hydrogen cooker and fire, both still in prototype stages.
“These are similar products that replace what people already know,” says Marc Clarke of Cadent, one of the UK’s largest gas distributors. Cadent and British Gas are the main backers of the Whitby proposal.
“Customers love to cook with gas, they love to heat their homes with gas boilers,” he says.
“Hydrogen uses devices that look very similar, but it’s a different gas flowing through it.”
Another concerned resident, Kate Grannell, has set up a Facebook page to help her neighbors get independent advice on hydrogen. She also takes questions directly to the gas companies, she.
“Initially we had about 140 questions,” he says. “A little over eight weeks later, we still haven’t had the answers to these questions.”
Queries include: What happens after the two-year trial expires? Will they go back to natural gas? What if hydrogen is more expensive? How can it affect home prices and could they lose financially from participating?
“They’re not asked if they can use my private house for an experiment,” says Ms. Grannell, tears welling in her eyes.
Consent is a complex issue. In its instructions to gas companies, the government asked them to include in their proposals evidence of how they interacted with and consulted with residents. Cadent told the BBC they had commissioned independent surveys to gauge residents’ reactions.
But requests from Kate and others to directly vote on the proposal fell on deaf ears.
“A vote is not going to be real world,” says Mr Clarke of Cadent. “We will all have to make that choice on a given day in order to switch to a different heating technology. This project is implementing that decision for Whitby right now, but it’s coming for all of us in the near future.”
The consultation period is expected to end in March as the government makes a decision on whether Whitby or Redcar will switch to pure hydrogen later in the year.
Whichever gets the green light, it will be hard for residents to object further. Legislation currently passed by the British parliament would authorize gas distributors to enter homes to mandate the transfer from natural gas.
A government fact sheet says this will only be used as a “last resort” and those who don’t want hydrogen should opt for electric heating instead.
Follow Jonah on Twitter at @jonahfisherbbc