Too many technical difficulties to overcome to make hydrogen a viable low-carbon heating fuel

Fiona Harvey writes on The Guardian website about a new study that questions the suitability of hydrogen for home heating. What are your views?


Hydrogen is unsuitable for home heating, review concludes

Hydrogen is unsuitable for use in home heating, and likely to remain so, despite the hopes of the UK government and plumbing industry, a comprehensive review of scientific papers has concluded.

Hydrogen lobbyists are out in force at the Labour party conference this week, sponsoring several events in Liverpool, and will be plentiful at the Conservative party conference that begins this weekend.

They are hoping to persuade the UK government to push ahead with a mooted large-scale rollout of hydrogen for home heating, as a replacement for the gas used to heat the vast majority of British homes. Hydrogen proponents say it would avoid households having to replace gas boilers with heat pumps, the other main contender for low-carbon home heating.

But researchers reviewed 32 studies of hydrogen and concluded that it was unlikely to play a major role in home heating, either as a full replacement for fossil fuel gas heating, or as a blend with natural gas.

Jan Rosenow, Europe director at the Regulatory Assistance Project, an energy thinktank, and co-author of the study, said there were too many technical difficulties to overcome to make hydrogen a viable and economic low-carbon heating fuel.

“Using hydrogen for heating may sound attractive at first glance. However, all of the independent research on this topic comes to the same conclusion: heating with hydrogen is a lot less efficient and more expensive than alternatives such as heat pumps, district heating and solar thermal,” he said.

The study, published on Tuesday in the peer-review scientific journal Joule, is the third major blow in the past week to proponents of hydrogen for home heating. Earlier this week, a separate study by the analyst company Cornwall Insight concluded that hydrogen would be close to twice as expensive for home heating as using gas alone. Last week, the Guardian revealed problems with a hydrogen pilot project in Scotland.

Rosenow told the Guardian hydrogen was not the alternative to heat pumps that lobbyists were claiming. “For policymakers, hydrogen for heating appears attractive because it seems easy: just replace fossil gas with hydrogen with no impact on households. The reality is that significant technical alterations are needed including the pipework in homes and that it will cost people a lot of money to keep warm.”

Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance and chairman of Liebreich Associates, said: “This is a timely paper, showing that no serious analysis has hydrogen playing more than a marginal role in the future of space heating. We need to get Europe’s heating systems off natural gas, and we need to do it without further delay. It’s time to stop the fight: the judges are unanimous and the winners are district heating, heat pumps and electrification.”

There are many other uses for hydrogen as a fuel, for instance in decarbonising heavy industry and shipping. If these industries are to be genuinely low-carbon, the hydrogen used will need to be generated using renewable energy, rather than coming from fossil fuels as some hydrogen does at present.

Some in the energy industry take a different view. James Earl, the director of gas at the UK’s Energy Networks Association, who represents the UK’s energy operators, told the Guardian: “No one heating system will get us to the UK’s net zero goals as a one-size-fits all approach to decarbonising heating will not work across the UK’s diverse customer base. We need to look at hydrogen, electrification and other technologies all as part of the mix.”

He added: “While hydrogen is expensive today, it is falling in cost rapidly and is forecast to fall to a similar cost to natural gas by 2030, if the cost of carbon emissions is fully recognised. Customers need choice and access to a range of technologies including heat pumps, hydrogen boilers, district heating and hybrid heating systems if we are to deliver a sustainable energy system for the future.”

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6 thoughts on “Too many technical difficulties to overcome to make hydrogen a viable low-carbon heating fuel

  1. The article shows a number of things. First, that for the most part journalists don’t know much about energy & are thus incapable of parsing bias (or indeed wishful thinking) from facts. Harvey falls into this class & this style of article – where a couple of supposed experts are (uncritically) interviewed for their views which are then reported as gospel. Harvey asks some questions about H2 & its ability to power space heating – but fails then to keep on asking questions.

    Moving to the “experts”, Rosenow (a lawyer) can only talk in terms of heat pumps. The reality is that we need to talk in terms of an energy system transformation – of which heat pumps are a part (how big of or small is still difficult to say). Sadly, the big energy picture passes Rosenow by. In the case of Liebreich (and indeed Rosenow) their comments betray their lack of knowledge with respect to the capacity of existing electrical power networks to carry the loads needed to power HPs (& charge Evs). They assume that power networks can be quickly and easily be reinforced. They can’t.

    I speak as a power engineer whose expertise is, electrical power networks. I have designed them, built them & operated them. I am an expert in this area. I am under no illusions that H2 can provide a total solution to space heating in the UK or anywhere else. But neither can district heat (I know exactly what is involved – the effort and the disruption) or HPs. At best we will need a mix, it will be a mess, it will be less than ideal. But that’s engineering you see – often a result that is a compromise. By contrast, the Rosenow and Liebriech’s of this world tend to talk in terms of single solutions, green sunlit uplands – with or without unicorns.

    I have no problems with the UK press giving space to such views, god knows they gave space to Farage and his pack of dolts. But the lack of a countervailing or indeed more nuanced view in such articles is unfortunate & as noted, a reflection of the depths to which the UK press has sunk.

  2. Mike, the problem has always been that both policy makers -and journalists – constantly seek to promote one single “silver bullet” that will answer every problem. Perhaps if they used the term”holy grail” instead, there would be rather greater appreciation of the well nigh impossibility of delivering any single simple solution to achieve the nirvana of “net zero.”
    That said, personally I still think that the best form of energy is the kind you don’t use in the first place. But then, if I am so clever, how come I ain’t rich?

    1. Yes, I like the idea of the holy grail. But there are too many in search of that “silver bullet.”

  3. “Moving to the “experts”, Rosenow (a lawyer) can only talk in terms of heat pumps”. I never studied law in my life. I studied geosciences at Muenster followed by environmental economics & policy (LSE) and a PhD in energy policy (Oxford). I have published extensively on energy efficiency and heating which has been the main focus of my research for almost 15 years. Feel free to consult my Google scholar profile.

  4. Parr pretends superior knowledge and accuses me of assuming “that power networks can be quickly and easily be reinforced.” Actually I don’t assume that.

    Like National Grid, I assume that the ability to electrify heating and transport by 2050 is not constrained by the capacity of the current power network, which can be very substantially reinforced and expanded over the next 28 years.

    Believing the opposite, as Parr does, is to ignore the evidence of history. Believing that the economics of hydrogen will miraculously come good – despite a 6x efficiency penalty in heating and a 3x penalty in transport – is to ignore the evidence of thermodynamics.

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