Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.
On Earth, most of it is combined with other elements, but when released from its chemical bonds using zero-carbon generated electricity, it can become both a versatile energy carrier and a clean fuel in its own right.
This means that there are high expectations of hydrogen: as a fluid fuel replacement for the methane we currently burn in boilers, as a store of green energy, and as a new industrial and economic sector.
But the key to realising the power of hydrogen – and the factor that underwrites the UK Government’s ambitions for it – is skills. The new world of clean, reformed energy needs a reformed workforce, and now is the time to determine how that will happen.
Hydrogen can be produced in several ways.
Most industrial hydrogen produced today comes from treating methane (natural gas) which is not a carbon-free process. However, large scale electrolysis – the splitting of water into its hydrogen and oxygen elements – can be carbon free if the electrical energy required comes from zero carbon sources, such as wind turbines.
Offshore wind turbines currently supply about a quarter of UK’s electricity – many more are being planned or are under construction.
Hydrogen that has been produced through this “green electrolysis” can be liquefied at very low temperatures. Storing a lot of energy in a relatively small container – effectively a liquid battery – the hydrogen can then be moved around efficiently in ships, tankers, and pipes – provided that the proven infrastructure and the proper skills are in place.
Liquid hydrogen storage and hydrogen fuel cells (which can produce an electrical current that can be used to power electrical vehicles) will become more commonplace, but the immediate area of interest is in hydrogen as a replacement fuel.
Hydrogen can be combusted without the release of greenhouse gases associated with burning methane and so the nation’s 27 million methane boilers, which are pretty much at the centre of keeping us warm in winter and supplied with instant hot water – and which are scheduled to disappear from 2035 – could be replaced with hydrogen boilers; provided that a safe, skilled, and sustainable workforce is available.
Energy & Utility Skills is closely involved in the development of the competencies and occupational standards that the new workforce will need – from wind turbine technicians to hydrogen boiler installers.
Energy & Utility Skills is a long-established and trusted standard setting body for the UK gas industry – ensuring that safety-critical competencies keep pace with industrial development.
The first steps towards the transition of the natural gas grid to a hydrogen grid involve blending the two gases. Hydrogen can be mixed at up to 20% before modifications to appliances are needed, but the workforce needs to know how to work with the new mix.
Working closely with Government and industry Energy & Utility Skills has established the Hydrogen Competency Framework to ensure that new hydrogen appliances are installed to the highest safety standards.
Whilst blending hydrogen with methane doesn’t seem to present too many challenges for assets, switching to 100% hydrogen is a different proposition: burning pure hydrogen embrittles metal, meaning there are infrastructure and appliance considerations; and should things go awry, hydrogen can detonate, unlike methane which tends to deflagrate, meaning that different safety scenarios – and the skills they demand – must be fully anticipated.
Energy & Utility Skills is working with industry, regulators, and others to deliver a range of research, development, and testing projects to assess the feasibility, costs, and benefits of using 100% hydrogen for heating.
Community tests are currently underway, with the hydrogen village trial due to report in 2026. The anticipated move to a 100% hydrogen gas supply will need new standards for skills in storage, transmission, and the installation of hydrogen appliances.
Earlier this year, National Grid announced Project Union, which will work to link the UK’s hydrogen producing centres together through a hydrogen grid. The project includes a timeline for transition and a description of what is needed to enable it, including skills.
Energy & Utility Skills is supporting the upskilling of the engineers needed for the pure hydrogen network.
Chair of the Energy & Utility Skills Partnership, and E.ON Chief Executive, Michael Lewis has been appointed as Co-Chair of the cross-government Green Jobs Delivery Group which is supported by ministers from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and is working to ensure the coordinated and effective delivery of the thousands of jobs that the transition to net zero will need.
The contracts that Energy & Utility Skills is delivering for BEIS on hydrogen appliance competencies, and the work with National Grid on hydrogen transmission, are paving the way for the safe, skilled, and sustainable workforce that hydrogen will need, and they will provide valuable and visible input to the Green Jobs Delivery Group.
Visit our Hydrogen for Heating page to find out more about the work Energy & Utility Skills is doing on hydrogen skills.