BY Polly Osborne

Achieving a net zero 2050 future is going to require significant changes to the way society uses energy. Electric vehicles (EVs), electrified heating and variable renewables will be key factors in taking us on the path toward a net zero carbon future. New demands and new sources of energy will have a huge impact on electricity networks. Hydrogen could be the helping hand the networks need to create balance in a future whole energy system.

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As the U.K. moves towards net zero, an obvious solution is to use more of what we’re already very familiar with: electricity. Renewables are now a significant part of the energy mix, allowing us to decarbonise electricity in the U.K. relatively easily.

But electrifying everything would create an enormous additional load on the already burdened electricity network. As distribution network operators (DNOs) transition into distribution system operators (DSOs), they need to welcome a collaborative approach with the gas networks to cope with the upswing and avoid blackouts.

A whole-system approach is necessary if we are to mitigate costs of updating capacity of the electricity network. It will be possible to balance demands on the network if we integrate low-carbon gas such as hydrogen into the mix.

Hydrogen is an alternative to natural gas that, when burnt, does not emit carbon emissions. There are two main methods of producing it:

  1. Electrolysis (electricity splitting water into (H2) and (O2).
  2. Reformation of methane, which has associated carbon emissions captured using carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS).

Potential use cases for hydrogen in applications that will reduce loads on the electricity network are numerous and will add momentum in gaining a net zero future.

A Source of Heat

Currently about 85% of domestic heating in the U.K. is supplied by gas. There are three main options for decarbonising heating:

  1. Electrification
  2. Heat networks
  3. Low-carbon gases

A combination of all three will be needed to suit all buildings, factoring in differences such as rural versus urban demands and domestic residential versus commercial structures.

Transport Source

Although EVs have been leading the way in the transformation of domestic modes of vehicular transport, hydrogen could still have a part to play. Chief amongst the advantages are faster refuelling times versus recharging times. However, EVs have been an easier transition in terms of public perception. Speed, safety and infrastructure all need to be considered in the battle between electricity versus hydrogen as we move towards 2035, when new petrol and diesel cars will be banned.

It is perhaps more feasible for hydrogen to play a significant role in decarbonising other segments of the transport sector, especially heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), which would require impractically large batteries if electrified.

Inter-Seasonal Storage

Perhaps the greatest way hydrogen can help electricity networks is to provide inter-seasonal storage. Gas is already stored in the U.K. to be used during the colder months when heating demand is high. Some of this storage space — specifically in salt caverns — can be repurposed to store hydrogen. Amongst other benefits, this will be an alternative to battery storage of excess renewable generation during the summer period.

Consumption-End Generation

A rather more radical application could be to install at-home hydrogen fuel cells, which, when teamed with rooftop solar panels to power the electrolysis process, could have the potential to flexibly generate all of a house’s required energy and take it off the grid by storing clean solar energy as hydrogen without the need for lithium-based battery technology. The energy system of the future certainly won’t be “one size fits all,” and we need a multitude of options in the arsenal to combat unique decarbonisation challenges in all situations.

Industrial Processes

Not all industrial processes can be electrified. Gas will continue to be the most efficient method of delivering thermal energy to many high-heat industrial processes. Though it will require significant capital investment to retrofit boilers and other equipment to burn hydrogen rather than natural gas, it is a path that must be explored.

Consequences of Moving to a Whole-System Approach


One of the biggest barriers to a whole-system approach is current regulation. The current regulatory regime does not work for multiple energy vectors working together, so swift change is needed by BEIS and OFGEM to integrate and align regulation.


As we transition to the energy system of the future, there are many technical roles that will require retraining and upskilling, from heating technicians learning how to install hydrogen boilers and heat pumps, to system planners. For the latter, a new breed of “whole-system engineers” may be needed, who understand both the electricity and gas networks and how they can work together. Pioneering projects that Burns & McDonnell is working on, such as Zero2050 and E-Port Energy, are already taking a whole-system approach to planning the multi-vector energy systems and networks of the future.


Data and digitalisation are key to the smooth operation of a reactive, flexible multi-vector energy system. How can we manage the quantity of data generated from a whole energy system? Using artificial intelligence to process and make informed decisions from this data will be critical.


We all want a greener, cleaner energy system. But who pays for it? Currently consumers can choose a green supplier should they decide that is their priority, but as we move to net zero the whole country will eventually be consuming green electricity.

The big question is what will it cost? Climate change will affect the poorest in society the most. This is a global challenge impacting the poorest nations to a greater extent than the U.K. What is the fairest system to apportion costs? Clearly many segments of society must bear burdens for tackling climate change, but a decarbonised energy system needs to be funded fairly.


We have to take action and we have to do it now. We cannot wait for further studies. We cannot wait for political indecision. As Greta Thunberg says: “Our house is on fire.” We need to act now.

Transforming the energy system will take investment and we can no longer delay making a decision about which technology is going to win out. We must progress both options of electrification and a switch to hydrogen. The reality is the holistic approach is likely to be a winner anyway, as gas currently dwarfs electricity in terms of the energy consumed in the U.K.

If we can utilize hydrogen gas as a replacement energy source for a number of applications, it’ll reduce the huge electricity upgrades that would otherwise be required. We cannot afford to delay. We must act now.

Cultural Shift and Education

We can all lend a hand, too. A whole-society approach is required. The responsibility goes beyond the networks alone. We have a societal responsibility to reduce our own energy demand and carbon footprint. As we recover from the societal shift caused by COVID-19, we can take a whole-society approach to the evolution of a net zero energy system.

The government and OFGEM must tap into this societal awakening, educating communities and informing people on the need to invest for a better net zero future.


University of Utah

Salt Lake City, Utah

Spring 2017


Established by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Better Buildings Challenge (BBC) program encouraged interested parties to identify savings strategies and reduce energy consumption through facility modifications. The University of Utah signed up for the program and established a revolving savings program internally to fund the project with an overall goal to reduce campus energy use by 20% by 2020.

The university needed a team to identify and quantify energy use along with categorize high energy utilization index (EUI) buildings on their campus. Very quickly, the buildings with high EUIs were identified as the laboratories on campus. Burns & McDonnell could then focus on evaluating energy measures and strategies around the laboratory environment. The BBC’s goal was to not only reduce the energy footprint of campuses, but also to provide economic savings while universities maintained effective facility use. Before any facility modifications could be made to reduce the university’s energy usage, facilities needed to undergo an energy audit to identify inefficient levels of energy consumption occurring around campus.








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