Stella Matthews is one of those individuals who comes alive when she talks about her day job. Her face literally lights up as she goes into the nitty gritty of what her role as Hydrogen Development Manager at Northern Gas Networks (NGN) involves. So much so that you’re left wondering if your own day job has a bigger purpose and fulfils you in the way it does Stella.
“It’s that legacy part of it… that knowing that what I’m part of is eventually going to change the world,” said Stella, her eyes blazing with passion.
Stella joined NGN in 2017 as a project officer for the H21 Team, which was a research team tasked to investigate the safety elements of reusing the existing gas distribution networks to transport 100% hydrogen.
“It was a lightbulb moment for the industry. The question was: could we reuse (circa) 32,000 kilometres of piping to transport a low carbon gas that’s better for the environment,” she said.
But the project wasn’t just about working alongside engineers and researching and developing the safety aspects of using the pipework, it was also about determining how onboard the public was with using hydrogen in their homes. Before long Stella was captivated not only by the industry itself and the potential impact the project would have on the planet, but also by all the different individuals she got to interact with daily.
Today Stella’s role involves reaching out to organisations and research companies in the hydrogen industry that are interested in knowledge sharing and then looking for ways that they can collaborate through funded projects. Her team has also worked with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) that has developed hydrogen appliances which they use in two hydrogen homes they’ve set up to demonstrate those appliances to members of the public, including boilers, cookers, fires, ovens and hobs.
The public want a solution for climate change and/or to reach net zero emissions, however, they also want little to no disruption to what they are currently doing at home, said Stella. Which is why hydrogen appliances are deemed an ideal solution, she added.
Although she’s not an engineer herself, Stella works with a fantastic team of engineers and on any given day could be speaking to someone in government, industry, innovation, or research in either the UK or internationally, including Europe, Asia and Australasia.
“No two days are the same, you can’t get bored,” she said.
The team’s work is now gaining a lot of momentum and where nobody wanted to hear from them before, Stella is now inundated with back-to-back calls.
The beauty about hydrogen is that it creates no carbon emissions when burned and you can also store it in bulk which is great for industries that have huge energy requirements.
“Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but it attaches itself to other elements, so you have to separate it,” said Stella.
Stella is aware utilities is often overlooked as an industry to work in.
“I love it. I never thought I would end up working in the gas industry. I studied archaeology at university and my plan was to go and travel the world and to find out interesting things about ancient history.”
But since falling into her role at NGN, she’s never looked back. And in fact, it’s an industry that not only gives her opportunities for career progression but promotes it too. In no way does Stella feel she is restricted to or boxed into one role. Even if she doesn’t have the skills, she is given the opportunity to explore other avenues at NGN. Moreover, working at NGN has given her access to mentorship via the “Women’s Utilities Network” which helps women who work in the water, gas and electricity industries.
“There’s a lot more to the gas industry than digging holes and laying and fixing pipes,” said Stella.
Instead, she feels like she’s playing a part in something amazing that is going to change the world and that it will have an impact on future generations.
Stella thinks one reason there’s a skills shortage and not enough people are joining the utilities industry is because there’s not enough exposure and visibility to it and the multitude of opportunities available to people, including women.
Working in hydrogen for example is cutting edge and her team is working on ground-breaking solutions that will impact the planet. It’s also a hugely growing industry with so much scope for expansion and learning opportunities.
“It’s exciting to feel you’re part of a solution that is going to make a huge difference to the planet. It’s that legacy part of it, even if you only play a small part in it,” said Stella.
And, funnily enough her father worked as a coal miner, so in some ways Stella feels like she’s doing something similar to him, only in her case she’s working on something that’s a lot better for the environment.
Stella said she thinks there could be a misperception that the gas industry is a dying trade and that it was important to get the message out there that there is life after natural gas for the industry. She added that working in hydrogen would soon be classed as a green job and that as more and more production methods were being developed, it would create hundreds of jobs not only in hydrogen production but also hydrogen storage.
Moreover, the hydrogen gas industry it’s a very fast paced environment and things change so quickly from working on plans to convert the gas network to 100% hydrogen for around 2,000 properties by 2025 and around 20,000 properties by 2030. She said it’s like the floodgates have suddenly opened and everyone – including government – wants them to show what they can do.
We are going to see more and more technologies and innovations emerging, and it’s only a matter of time before hydrogen is commercialised, said Stella. In fact, she believes it is only a matter of time before people see the fruits of the hydrogen industry’s labours and that more of them will want to be a part of it.
To find out more about the potential impact of hydrogen on your talent pipeline read our blog post, Developing the skills for hydrogen starts now.