HyDeploy - Customer perceptions at Keele

Future of energy

The HyDeploy demonstration on the Keele University campus includes around 100 domestic properties, in addition to 30 commercial buildings associated with the operation of the University. These households are the first in the UK to receive hydrogen blended gas in their homes, since the conversion from town gas in 1976. Therefore, the Keele demonstration represents the first opportunity to explore the perceptions of domestic hydrogen use by householders who will be receiving hydrogen-blended gas in their own homes, rather than as simply a hypothetical consideration. 

I’m leading a team of researchers at Keele University who are carrying out research into the perceptions of hydrogen in the home and the HyDeploy demonstration at Keele. The research is in two phases; we interviewed a sample of households involved in HyDeploy before the live blending started, and the second phase will take place towards the end of 2020. 

At our recent webinar, our presentation of the results from this first phase of research prompted a number of related questions which I’d like to answer here. 

What communication was there with consumers about the future trajectory of gas in home heating systems and how this will inevitably affect consumer choice?

The communication with residents has largely been focused around the environmental benefits of blended hydrogen as a stepping stone to the replacement of natural gas. The residents interviewed were largely very supportive of the HyDeploy project principally because of its environmental benefits (and the lack of disruption to them!). Several expressed a sense of excitement, seeing themselves at the vanguard of a significant shift in our energy systems to more sustainable alternatives.

The interviews were carried out with residents in June 2019 not long after the government announcement to halt connections of new homes to the gas grid beyond 2025. However, this wasn’t brought up by any of the participants, nor did anyone discuss the alternatives to gas heating systems. It seems that largely for those with gas heating systems, there is little consideration of alternatives, and people are happy to see a more ‘environmentally friendly’ version of their current energy system.

The lack of discussion of the debates around green gas or alternative heating systems, suggests a general lack of awareness of the energy transition that is marching upon us. There is a danger in the presence of such a vacuum in societal awareness that this can easily be filled with misconceptions and myths leading to negative perceptions of new technologies, which we know can stop a technological development in its tracks. Projects such as HyDeploy therefore have a vital role to play in raising public consciousness and understanding about new and emerging approaches to tackle carbon reduction in our energy systems, as well as continuing to ensure that we develop our understanding of the consumer perceptions of these new energy paradigms.  

The Keele residents aren’t a ‘typical community’; is research on residents' views going to continue in future demonstrations on public sites?

Although the Keele community is somewhat unusual and all of the research participants have some connection with the university, as employees, ex-employees, or employee family members, the research participants covered a range of demographics, as well as housing type and tenure.  The HyDeploy project is primarily a technical project, aiming to establish the safety case for the roll-out of hydrogen blending across the country. However, each set of demonstrations is associated with extensive engagement with the local communities and the residents affected by the project.

This provides an excellent opportunity to learn more about consumer perceptions, reactions and experiences of receiving a hydrogen blend in their homes. This learning both about how to effectively communicate these concepts with consumers and consumer responses will be essential in any subsequent roll-out of hydrogen blends. The community engagement teams for the public network demonstration are constantly feeding back learning from their interactions with consumers, but there is certainly the potential for further academic research into this area, and related to these demonstrations.  

Was anyone who took part in the trial recognised as potentially a customer in a vulnerable situation? If so, did their views differ during the interviews?

The vulnerable have often been disadvantaged or excluded from innovations in energy systems, and it is crucial that in a transition to hydrogen blended gas we ensure a positive impact, rather than just a lack of negative impacts, on those most vulnerable, and that they remain appropriately informed and with the opportunity for their voices to be heard. 

The modes of communication during HyDeploy have been diverse from letters, online information, engagement events, phone calls and home visits.  Particular efforts have been made to ensure that those who were perceived as vulnerable were fully understanding of the project and had an opportunity to discuss any worries. These interactions also provided the opportunity to identify any problems with heating systems and accessing suitable warmth. During testing of appliances replacement heating systems were also, obviously, put in place.
  
There are many attributes which may make an individual vulnerable. The research into consumer perceptions on the Keele campus involved one woman in her late 80s. Like many of the other residents, she was very supportive of the project, and linked this support to its positive environmental implications. However, she did highlight that she wasn’t good with ‘online things’, hence the need to ensure that we have diverse communication avenues to provide the relevant information and support for everyone. 

The nature of the project means that residents don’t have the opportunity to ‘opt out’. What can be done to ensure that residents feel they are benefitting from taking part in the demonstrations? 

Unlike some energy transition technologies that people may be more familiar with, such as smart meters, residents on the gas grid involved in HyDeploy don’t have an opportunity to opt out of receiving the blended hydrogen gas in their homes. It is important to communicate the logistical reasons for this, as well as the nature of the HSE exemption, meaning that blended hydrogen gas is compliant network gas, evaluated as safe as the natural gas they already receive. The level of hydrogen blend was determined such that there is no disruption for consumers during the operational phase of the demonstration. 

Those taking part in HyDeploy do receive some immediate benefits in the form of reduced bills (as they don’t pay for the hydrogen component in the gas they use), as well as free gas safe checks on their gas appliances. A number of households have also received free replacement boilers where the checks have identified the boilers as fundamentally unsafe on natural gas. The project has identified cases where people have had faulty heating systems and been able to get these replaced as well as identifying potentially vulnerable customers and taking action to provide them with further support.  These customer interactions also provide opportunities for further customer advice on energy efficiency and energy services and should be seen as part of a broader opportunity for customer support.
 
Professor Zoe Robinson, University of Keele 

This blog is part of the series following our webinar in May and is our way of continuing to address the many questions raised. Watch this space for monthly blogs in future.  

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