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What is the future of Heat? Part 2: Is Hydrogen the answer?

Posted by Brychan Williams on 2 August 2019 at 4:52 pm

In Part 1 of our blog series we looked at the role that heat pumps could play in the future of UK heating. To view that blog click here.

What other options are there available that can replace gas as our main source of heating as we move to a net zero carbon economy?

One potential solution could be to completely electrify heat. Whilst currently electric heating often uses conventional energy sources, as the percentage of renewable energy sources within the UK energy mix increases, the more sustainable this method of heating will become. However, it will still be costly for households to replace their gas boilers with electric central heating systems. Whilst the government could potentially offer financial incentives for households to electrify heat in the future, could there be potentially better options out there for the government?

Hydrogen?

One possible option could be hydrogen. The gas produces no carbon emissions when combusted and it is likely that the gas could safely replace natural gas in the UK grid system according to a new report from the Institution of Engineering and Technology. Bearing in mind that 85% of homes currently use natural gas to heat their homes, hydrogen could be a great replacement as it could make use of the infrastructure already in place within the majority of UK households. Boilers would not need to be replaced therefore making the switch in gas a very suitable option as it is likely to be more affordable for all consumers.

Currently one of the main barriers to households who want make their heating systems more renewable is the cost. If hydrogen fuel can simply replace gas within existing boiler systems, it is likely that thousands more households will be able to afford to switch due to there being no high installation costs.

However, hydrogen cannot be considered a renewable energy source if the gas is produced using non-renewable energy sources. The production of hydrogen is also very energy intensive which means that if the UK did decide to go down the route of replacing natural gas with hydrogen, it may need to substantially increase its energy supply.

Further, if hydrogen is produced via electrolysis, the use of water must be called into question. There are already concerns within the UK about a potential shortage of water in England within 25 years.Michael Webber who is an Associate Director at the Centre for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas has provided the first analysis of the total water requirements of a hydrogen economy and his findings suggest that ‘this increase in water intensity could have unprecedented consequences on the natural resource and public policy.’

Can hydrogen replace natural gas therefore?

 From a personal perspective, I believe that hydrogen is not the solution. We cannot call it a sustainable energy source if it means that it will intensively use up water supplies. Further, the production is very energy intensive. Would the UK be able to substantially increase energy output? There is already a concern amongst the government around meeting future energy demand, especially when almost half the UK's current nuclear capacity is to be retired by 2025.

More importantly would the UK be able to expand output without an increase in the use of fossil fuels?

It seems unlikely.

There are already questions being raised as to whether we will produce enough electricity to facilitate the increase in electric vehicles. Add hydrogen production to this, and it is unlikely that future demand will be met.

From my point of view it seems that the way forward is to electrify heat. However, significant investment needs to be made into renewable energy technologies so that the electricity generated to produce heat is clean. Only then will we be able to make heating across the UK fully sustainable.

In regards to new builds it makes sense for it to be a compulsory requirement for heat pumps to be installed. As has been explained in Part 1 they are very efficient in well insulated homes. For every unit of electricity used, 2.5-4 units of thermal energy is created. This could mean that high energy bills will become a thing of the past for those living in very energy efficient new builds.

 

If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.

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Comments

2 comments - read them below or add one

Bean Beanland

Bean BeanlandComment left on: 9 August 2019 at 9:24 am

I'm not sure that it's correct to assert that gas boilers could burn hydrogen with no modifications, and, whilst carbon emissions would be zero, NOx emissions could be higher : https://www.theengineer.co.uk/domestic-hydrogen-appliances/

Any switch to hydrogen is likely to result in higher leakage. Natural gas leakage is already higher than most people realise.

Then there's the price of hydrogen, Wales & West Utilities gave a price, at today's money, of around 8p/kWh. The Leeds City Gate H21 report gives a theoretical retail price of around 9.3p/kWh. A figure at this level (twice the price of natural gas), is a price shock for millions of households, by anybody's standards.

We are also years away from commercialising CCS and hydrogen production, so we must press on with the decarbonisation of heat using currently available technology. At the moment, this means heat pumps. At some stage in the future, new technologies, including hydrogen, may become a commercially viable alternative, but the longer we wait, the bigger the problem will be, and the greater the cost to the public purse in achieving net zero by 2050.

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Anonymous

AnonymousComment left on: 3 August 2019 at 3:09 pm

"...The production of hydrogen is also very energy intensive..."

The CCC's plans for 'Net Zero' by 2050 is utterly dependant upon having a low-carbon energy carrier to backup the high capacities of wind and solar pv they propose. Gas turbines will be just as necessary as they are now, to cope with real-time intermittency and gas storage for the interseasonal issues.

It will be impossible to electrify heat with renewables. Abhored biomass generation, societal resistance to build-out of conventional and pumped hydro means they would not solve the intermittency problem of enormous capacities of wind and solar pv. So an energy carrier to backup renewables and supply most of the heat we use, is indespensible. So it must be hydrogen from Steam Methane Reforming, combined with a CCuS infrastructure for low-carbon status.

The CCC's costing of its plans as a % of GDP, does not pin the tail on the donkey of the cost of switching over to hydrogen. However, the IEA have just put a figure on it in US$/kgH2 and I was able to do a blog post, calculating the extra cost to UK domestic H2 users - £1,270.00 per year. This will drag many 1000s or 10s of 1000s into the eat or heat catagory, in the depth of winter:

 https://bwrx-300-nuclear-uk.blogspot.com/2019/07/hydrogen-production-for-heating-and-hot.html

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