The firm behind a Fife trial of hydrogen in homes has refused to release the findings of explosion testing because they could “damage participation”, “undermine funding”, and threaten the “continued viability” of the project.

SGN’s H100 project will test hydrogen as a greener alternative to natural gas for heating and cooking in a “world-first trial” at 300 homes in the villages of Buckhaven and Denbeath from 2024. 

Despite its mooted benefits for the climate, the safety of using hydrogen in homes has been the source of significant concern. Publicly-funded research last year found that using hydrogen to heat houses could cause four times as many fires and explosions as natural gas. 

Ahead of H100, SGN conducted simulated kitchen explosions to assess whether hydrogen poses more risk in houses than natural gas. The Ferret submitted an environmental information request (EIR) to SGN asking for details of these tests including videos and measurements taken during them. 

But the company refused to provide this information on commercial confidentiality grounds. It claimed that doing so could “undermine the project” and “result in the removal” of public funding from the Scottish Government and UK energy regulator, Ofgem.

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Critics of H100 said the “very least” participants deserve is “transparency” around the risk they face by taking part in the trial. “SGN’s refusal to share the results of explosion tests immediately makes you wonder what they are trying to hide,” one claimed. 

SGN said that “safety is at the heart of everything” it does and added that it is “engaging with the community to clearly explain all aspects of the project”. 

‘Undermine the project’

SGN – the owner of Scotland’s gas pipelines – is treated as a public body under EIR regulations, so members of the public can ask it to provide details of its environmental impact. 

The explosion testing was carried out by specialists, Kiwa, and involved injecting and igniting both natural gas and hydrogen in shipping containers which simulated a domestic kitchen. 

SGN refused to release videos or photographs of the explosions, charts or diagrams of measurements taken, or documents containing conclusions of the study. 

“We consider that the premature release of any information or reports could unnecessarily damage participation and undermine the funding and continued viability of the project as well as its purpose, which is to investigate low-carbon heating alternatives to natural gas,” its EIR response said.

“Release of information […] without the wider context which that information sits in could ultimately and unreasonably undermine the project and result in the removal of its funding, despite the huge investment SGN has made to ensure it is a success and the loss of public funding which has been provided,” the response continued. 

The Scottish Government has given £6.9m of funding to H100, while Ofgem granted it £18m through its Gas Network Innovation Competition

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The company also argued that because H100 is set to inform a UK Government decision on the role hydrogen heating will play in meeting UK climate targets, there would be implications for the “UK’s net zero strategy” if the project was cancelled as a result of the explosion testing data being released.

The Ferret has submitted an appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner arguing that releasing the information is in the public interest.

Safety worries

Home heating causes 14 per cent of UK carbon emissions, so finding a cleaner alternative to natural gas is essential if climate targets are to be met. Hydrogen is a touted solution because it does not produce carbon when burned. 

Hydrogen is the preferred alternative of the UK’s gas network owners – including SGN. Their pipelines could become stranded assets if there is a widespread switch to electricity for heat, rather than hydrogen, because electric heat pumps would not need these pipes. 

The gas networks argue that switching to hydrogen would be “low cost and low disruption” because much of the current gas network infrastructure could be repurposed for hydrogen. 

Critics, however, claim that it will be more expensive and inefficient than other technologies like heat pumps and district heating schemes. 

There are also safety worries. Hydrogen is up to four times more likely to ignite, more prone to leaks and is more explosive than natural gas, according to SGN’s own analysis.

A UK Government study – Hy4Heat – last year found that explosion and fire events in the UK caused by home heating could increase from nine a year with natural gas to 39 a year with hydrogen. The consequences of these events could leave 65 individuals injured annually across the UK, compared to the current 17 for natural gas. 

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According to Hy4Heat, annual injuries with hydrogen could be brought down to the level of natural gas with measures to reduce and detect leaks. But there would still be more fire and explosive events if hydrogen is used for domestic heating. 

When asked by The Ferret, SGN said “appropriate mitigation measures” will be in place, but declined to confirm whether this included fitting the excess flow valves, ventilation and hydrogen leak detectors that Hy4Heat said would be needed to bring safety risk down to the level of natural gas. 

Dr Richard Dixon, an environmental consultant and former director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, claimed that releasing information on the H100 explosion testing was “clearly in the public interest” and “SGN should be compelled to release it so people in the area can make up their own minds”. 

“SGN’s refusal to share the results of explosion tests immediately makes you wonder what they are trying to hide,” Dixon said. 

“This trial is at best a waste of time but at worst it is putting people in danger.”

Tom Baxter, a chemical engineering consultant and visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde, claimed that “hydrogen is an inherently less safe gas than natural gas”. 

He added that “over 30 independent studies” had shown hydrogen to be a more expensive option than heat pumps or heat networks. “Hydrogen will put more families into fuel poverty,” Baxter said. 

Gillian Campbell of the Existing Homes Alliance, claimed that The Ferret’s findings were “another nail in the coffin” of H100. 

“The very least participants in these trials deserve is transparency around risk. We need to put an end to the confusion around heating and focus on delivering what we know works – energy efficient homes and renewables-based heat pumps and heat networks,” Campbell claimed. 

Waseem Hanif, spokesperson for SGN said: “As safety is at the heart of everything we do, we've been working with the relevant authorities and industry to show that hydrogen can be used to replace natural gas for home heating.

“The recent government backed Hy4Heat study, which has been independently reviewed by the Health and Safety Executive, states that using hydrogen can be as safe as natural gas for heating and cooking in standard construction detached, semi-detached, and terraced houses. Appropriate safety mitigations will be in place and reviewed by the Health and Safety Executive.

“H100 Fife has the backing of the energy regulator Ofgem, the Scottish Government and crucially hundreds of residents. We are committed to engaging with the community to clearly explain all aspects of the project.”