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UK hydrogen safety law: the developing framework

As the UK’s fledgling low carbon hydrogen industry develops, a combination of existing health and safety laws and additional, hydrogen-specific standards and guidance seems like the most likely route to effective safety regulation.

As the world looks to decarbonise there has been increased attention on the development and use of low carbon hydrogen. However, as investment and projects are brought forward, policymakers are conscious that there is a need to overcome the negative public perception of hydrogen as not being ‘safe’. This seems to be based on media reporting and striking images of high profile safety incidents often from decades ago.

To ensure that safety issues are not seen as some sort of handbrake on energy diversification a case needs to be made that this perception does not match up with the reality, with many industries already safely managing high-risk substances, keeping workers safe and maintaining the confidence of both the public and investors.

The inherent natural properties of hydrogen do make it a substance which requires particular safety management. These include:

  • a hydrogen flame is hard to see in daylight and doesn’t emit a large amount of heat, meaning it is hard to detect without flame detection colourant;
  • hydrogen lacks smell, again making it hard to detect without added odorant;
  • hydrogen is buoyant and therefore rises rapidly, which may lead to explosive mixtures quickly forming;
  • hydrogen is easier to transport in cryogenic liquid form rather than gas due to its large volume – this requires specialist training for all handlers;
  • mixtures of air and hydrogen forming accidentally within contained systems must be avoided due to their high volatility – this impacts on maintenance which will need to be well planned rather than reactive;
  • hydrogen corrodes certain materials – for example, steel – more quickly than its natural gas counterpart, meaning that careful consideration must be given to the materials used in storage and transportation of hydrogen.

This of itself does not mean that hydrogen is any more or less safe than natural gas or petroleum-based products. However, it does mean that hydrogen-specific consideration must be given to storage, transportation and utilisation with specific controls in place to prevent corrosion, gas escapes and ignition. As the use of low carbon hydrogen increases, understanding the safety issues and implementing these controls becomes ever more important.


Why the need for low carbon hydrogen?

The increasing cost of fossil fuels and natural gas has led to soaring prices in European energy markets, and highlighted the urgent need to move towards more sustainable fuels.

At the same time, the cost of energy crisis has highlighted the absence of clear and available alternatives to hydrocarbons in many parts of the energy system, even as the European Commission and many national governments – including the UK – set net zero emissions targets.

White Laura

Laura White

Senior Associate

There is no hydrogen specific safety legislation in the pipeline. It seems clear the UK hydrogen market will get underway utilising current legislation, along with hydrogen specific standards and guidance

To meet these targets and reduce emissions there needs to be low-carbon fuel alternatives, and UK and European policymakers have set their sights on low-carbon hydrogen as one of them.

Although hydrogen today is mostly made via carbon-intensive steam methane reforming methods, its emissions can be curtailed by adding carbon capture and storage (CCS) to the process, or by making the gas from water through electrolysis.

The UK Government Hydrogen Strategy states that low carbon hydrogen is fundamentally necessary to net zero. However, entirely new infrastructure systems are required to make this a reality. There are existing safety regulatory frameworks for electricity and gas which are applicable for hydrogen but for hydrogen production, use and transport at scale may need to be enhanced over time.

Creating infrastructure for the transport and storage of hydrogen is crucial, along with repurposing existing infrastructure.

The UK government’s energy security strategy, published in April 2022, sets out how Great Britain will accelerate the deployment of wind, new nuclear, solar and hydrogen, while supporting the production of domestic oil and gas in the nearer term – which could see 95% of electricity by 2030 being low carbon.

The UK is looking to set up a hydrogen certification scheme by 2025, to demonstrate high-grade British hydrogen for export and ensure any imported hydrogen meets the same high standards that UK companies expect.

What health and safety laws currently apply to UK hydrogen activities?

The UK gas network is commercially regulated by the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority, operating through Ofgem. Hydrogen falls in the definition of ‘gas’ under the Gas Act 1986 and is therefore regulated as part of the gas network, and anyone engaging in any hydrogen operations must have a licence under the Gas Act. There is also an established legislative regime and framework governing gas and pipelines, which apply to hydrogen.

A number of pieces of safety legislation apply to hydrogen:

  • the Planning (Hazardous Substances) Act 1990 and Planning (Hazardous Substances) Regulations 2015 regulate the storage of hydrogen, including a requirement for consent where two or more tonnes of hydrogen are to be stored.
  • the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmosphere Regulations (DSEAR) 2002 place duties on employers to eliminate or control the risks from explosive atmospheres in the workplace, and require employers to eliminate or control the risks from dangerous substances. DSEAR also gives effect to the two EU directives for controlling explosive atmospheres, together known as ATEX.
  • the Pipeline Safety Regulations 1996 set out requirements for pipeline design, construction, installation, operation, maintenance, and decommissioning, while the Notification of Installations Handling Hazardous Substances Regulations 2002 places restrictions on handling hazardous substances in quantities exceeding a threshold.
  • the Gas Safety (Management) Regulations (GSMR) 1996 require any transporters of gas, including hydrogen, to submit a safety case to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) identifying hazards and risks and how they are controlled.
  • the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 2015 also regulate the storage of hydrogen. It requires operators to take all measures necessary to prevent major accidents and to limit consequences for human health and the environment.
  • the Carriage of Dangerous Goods and Use of Transportable Pressure Equipment Regulations 2004 apply to the carriage of dangerous goods, including hydrogen, by road and rail and places general duties on everyone with a role in transporting the goods.
  • the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulations 2017 SI 2017/825 apply to the provision of certain alternative fuel infrastructure. The infrastructure relates to electricity and hydrogen for vehicles and seagoing ships at berth.

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015, and Building Regulations 2010 are also likely to apply in certain instances.

What possible approaches are there for further regulating hydrogen in the UK?

Bearing in mind there is no hydrogen specific safety legislation in the pipeline it seems clear the UK hydrogen market will get underway utilising current legislation, along with hydrogen specific standards and guidance.

Notably, the GSMR only currently permits 0.1% hydrogen to be introduced to the existing gas network. For greater amounts this needs to be permitted by way of direct exemption from the HSE – something which is currently being trialled.

Exemptions are allowed for increased use of hydrogen only where it can be shown that the health and safety of any person likely to be affected by the exemption will not be prejudiced in any way.

What does the hydrogen health and safety regulation picture look like internationally? 

Internationally a wide range of hydrogen safety programmes are well established and developing swiftly.

In Europe, the European Hydrogen Safety Panel (EHSP) was launched in 2017 to support the EU’s Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking in projects and programmes. The EHSP focuses on promoting safety in the production, storage, distribution and use of hydrogen, recognising that any failure would have a serious impact on the public’s perception of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

The EHSP’s general protection objective is to exclude or at least minimise potential hazards and associated risks to prevent impacts on people, property and the environment.

In the US, the Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Program seeks to ensure the safe operations of hydrogen research and development, and identify and address needs for new knowledge and technology in the future hydrogen economy.

The programme has developed a free best practices and training resource for emergency responders dealing with hydrogen-related incidents, as well as providing up-to-date, credible information relating to hydrogen safety.

In Australia, Standards Australia is instrumental in development and adoption of hydrogen standards which includes safety aspects, working closely with key stakeholders to move Australia towards a more sustainable future. It adopted eight key hydrogen standards in 2020, and work to bring further guidance to the sector is ongoing. These include safety considerations – for example safety aspects of hydrogen generators; the construction, safety and performance of systems to produce hydrogen by the electrolysis of water; and design and safety features of systems to purify hydrogen to meet quality standards.

What is the experience of using hydrogen so far?

One thing which is essential for hydrogen safety is international collaboration on safety methods, including materials usage and communicating outcomes of serious incident investigation. Several investigations undertaken after hydrogen safety incidents have been published online, and these are invaluable in aiding understanding of the particular features to be aware of in hydrogen safety and primary incident causes from past events.

A significant hydrogen safety event took place in the US in the summer of 2019 during a gaseous hydrogen fill of a modular multi-cylinder trailer. Hydrogen was accidentally released from an open pipe following an unauthorised attempt to repair a leaking valve and a subsequent miscommunication between the two drivers filling the trailer. A hydrogen-air mixture explosion occurred within seconds of the release, followed by a high-pressure gas jet fire. The fire and explosion caused pipe damage and activation of hydrogen cylinder temperature-pressure relief devices, adding additional hydrogen fuel to the incident, and eventually spreading to other materials on adjacent vehicles.

Two individuals sustained minor injuries during the incident, and there was significant property damage on-site. Personnel initiated a shutdown and isolation of other trailers and tanks to prevent further releases.

The reported primary causes of the incident were:

  • unauthorised maintenance performed by personnel not following proper procedures; and
  • miscommunication between the two drivers filling the trailer.

The improvement measures implemented by the affected business ring true for many health and safety related incidents outside of innovative energy markets; the improved training of the drivers, filing procedures, and evaluated and modified some equipment for better use with hydrogen. So while the nature of hydrogen caused this incident unexpectedly, the safety steps which need to be taken are very familiar to those already working with hazardous substances and in high risk industries.

Other research shows that the main causal factors in hydrogen incidents are lack of training and a poor understanding of hydrogen hazards. Clearly the nature of hydrogen means that the impact of such incidents has high potential but the control methodologies available allow the frequency of them to be greatly reduced.  With an increase in hydrogen production and usage anticipated, hydrogen specific training will also need to be increased proportionately. For example for maintenance or emergency response.

Just under two thirds of incidents are in the chemical and petrochemical sectors, which reflects current hydrogen usage. Clearly the broader range of sectors hydrogen is utilised in the increased risk of hydrogen incidents to those sectors.

What is being done to assess hydrogen safety in practice?

In Scotland, chemicals company INEOS and Scottish Gas Networks have started a 29km pipeline project to show how natural gas pipelines can be repurposed to distribute hydrogen.

At Keele University, a £7 million zero carbon hydrogen injection gas network to heat homes is now fully operational. The 20% blend feed will heat 100 homes and 30 faculty buildings.

At Winlanton, near Gateshead in the north of England, a Cadent/Northern Gas Networks partnership is delivering a 20% hydrogen blend to 670 homes for cooking and heating. The last two projects are also in partnership with the HSE.

Other areas the HSE are working on are:

  • ensuring the safety of hydrogen vehicles in tunnels and confined spaces
  • helping the Port of London develop a national hydrogen highway network
  • researching into the safe use of liquid hydrogen

In addition the HSE are hosting the first Safe Net Zero at the QEII Centre in London from 21-22 March 2023, bringing together a wide range of organisations who are developing and deploying hydrogen technologies

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