Hydrogen power should be reserved for powering aircraft and large factories, say experts, dashing hopes gas industry could pivot to piping hydrogen into homes. Madeleine Cuff discusses latest developments in an article on the inews website.
End of the road for gas boilers? Researchers give thumbs down to hydrogen heating
New research has poured cold water on the idea hydrogen should replace gas as a central heating fuel for millions of people across the UK.
The gas industry and the Government are investing millions of pounds to see if the UK’s existing gas grid could be converted to run on hydrogen. That would save the British public from the disruption of having to rip out their boilers and retrofit their homes with heat pumps, the industry argues.
But researchers from Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research have warned hydrogen fuel is too inefficient and expensive to rely on for home heating, warning doing so would be a “risky” bet for countries targeting net zero emissions.
Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements in the atmosphere, but it usually comes bonded to another element. Producing zero carbon hydrogen from water – so-called ‘green hydrogen’ – is currently expensive and requires a large amount of electricity.
For most sectors, including home heating and cars, it would be cheaper and greener to use electricity directly, the researchers say. That is because making hydrogen to power a car or heat a home generally requires much more electricity than simply running an electric car or heat pump.
In these circumstances, hydrogen offers a “fragile climate benefit”, according to lead author Falko Ueckerdt. “We are saying prioritise direct electrification wherever possible”, he told i.
Industries such as shipping, long-distance freight and steel production are likely to depend on hydrogen fuels to decarbonise. But a full-scale supply chain for green hydrogen is not likely to be up and running for decades, Mr Ueckerdt warned. Banking on it to supply cars and homes as well as other major industries such as aviation also risks “locking” countries in to high carbon infrastructure, he said.
“What is a bit of a risk is installing a gas boiler or gas heating system with the promise that this gas will later be e-methane or hydrogen. Because if the hydrogen is not coming because it’s too expensive, because it takes so much time to scale it up, then you are locked in to fossil fuels.”
In an all but a few niche cases, Mr Ueckerdt believes gas boilers should be removed from homes, explaining it would be more “climate effective” to have homes running on heat pumps and reserve the “scarce” hydrogen for other industries.
The hydrogen rainbow
Most experts agree hydrogen is the main hope for industries such as shipping, aviation, long-distance freight, steel and chemical production to decarbonise.
Producing enough for all these industries will be a major challenge. There’s three major ways of producing hydrogen, but not all of them will be suitable for a net zero world.
- Grey hydrogen: This is made with natural gas, which when heated reacts with steam to produce hydrogen (and significant carbon emissions). This is how most of the world’s hydrogen is currently produced.
- Blue hydrogen: Blue hydrogen production is similar grey hydrogen, but the resulting carbon emissions are stored underground – a process known as carbon capture and storage. Some “fugitive” emissions will still escape, but it is a greener process than grey hydrogen production.
- Green hydrogen: This is the greenest way of producing hydrogen. It works by using electricity to power a process of electrolysis, where water is separated into hydrogen and oxygen. However, hydrogen produced this way is up to three times more expensive compared to grey hydrogen, and requires large amounts of electricity.