The fifties had some good points, but do they seal the deal for hydrogen?

Often in discussion on the future of gas, there is talk about the role of hydrogen. Sometimes that is put forward as more or less a ‘straight swap’ from natural gas. There is a concern though: people worry about having hydrogen – firmly identified in many of our schooldays as an explosive gas – in pipes in the street and in the house.

I heard just that issue discussed today, and the response was one I had heard before: “People don’t realise how much hydrogen there was in Town Gas. They had it for decades and no-one worried”.

If that strikes a chord, I have some cigarettes, a car with no seatbelts and a coal-fired power station for you. Also I can offer you some stories – enjoyable but unsourced – about people who move house next to a farm or a church, who then complain about the centuries-old background noise of the cocks crowing or the bells tolling.

Sorry, but if your customer engagement strategy is “it was fine in the fifties”, it is time to think again.

I recommend (cut and pasted from the transport sector) the Tesla strategy. That didn’t depend on the old old story about the first cars, more than a century ago, being electric.  It offered something powerful, good looking and aspirational.

If you think hydrogen is the answer – and even if you don’t believe there is a place for it in domestic heating, it may be valuable for decarbonising some forms of transport or industry – you have to offer something better than we have now.  Yes, we’re superficial snowflakes, but if you want me to swap from gas to hydrogen heat, with all the internal changes needed in my property, you had better make a case for why it is cleaner, greener, quieter and generally a step up.

And that message has to stand up to scrutiny: one thing we have all learned since the fifties, not least from the tobacco industry, is that advertisers are careless with the truth and incumbents have businesses to protect. It’s not the situation in 1950 that has to make the case for consumers now, it’s the situation in 2050.

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