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Climate change: Hydrogen isn't the cleanest way to heat our homes

Clean hydrogen has great potential to power hard-to-abate sectors such as heavy industry, shipping and aviation. But it is a less economic, more resource-intensive method of heating homes

February 27, 2023 / 12:05 PM IST
Hydrogen is a less economic, more resource-intensive method of heating than alternatives such as heat pumps and solar thermal.

Hydrogen is a less economic, more resource-intensive method of heating than alternatives such as heat pumps and solar thermal.

Hydrogen is one of the most abundant gases, estimated to make up 75 percent of the mass of the universe. It also has great potential to help the world slash greenhouse gas emissions, since it doesn’t produce any carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions when it’s burned for energy. Yet its use has been limited thus far.

That’s set to change in the UK over the next couple of years.

Under proposed plans drawn up by National Gas, which owns and operates the UK’s 7,630-kilometer (4,760-mile) natural gas transmission network, between 2 percent and 5 percent of the fuel running through the pipelines could be hydrogen by 2025. The plans have not yet been approved by the government. But other countries, including Norway, are also exploring hydrogen blending. Considering 77 percent of Britain’s gas imports come from Norway, it’ll need to be ready to receive blended gas.

The idea is being sold as a step toward decarbonising natural gas (which is mostly methane with small amounts of other hydrocarbons), which still heats 78 percent of homes in the UK. But don’t mistake this as a way of cutting emissions significantly. Even taking the hydrogen share up to 20 percent would only result in a 7 percent reduction in carbon emissions, at best. The savings of a 2 percent-5 percent hydrogen blend would be miniscule.

Instead, think of blending as one step along the UK’s plan to build a “hydrogen backbone”: a reinvention of the country’s gas network for a net zero age. But it’ll need to start making priorities about what hydrogen should power long-term. It makes more sense to use 100 percent hydrogen in some areas — heavy industry, for example — but not in others, such as our homes. More on this later.

First, an explanation of what a hydrogen backbone might look like. Clean hydrogen has great potential to power hard-to-abate sectors such as heavy industry, shipping and aviation. Hydrogen can be stored for long periods without losing energy so it could also improve resilience of the electricity grid by being a backup fuel during times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. The UK’s hydrogen backbone would repurpose up to 2,000 kilometers of gas pipelines to transport clean hydrogen to industrial clusters across the country.

Hydrogen Demand | The biggest use cases for hydrogen are in the hard-to-abate sectors such as shipping and manufacturing

Hydrogen comes in a variety of colors depending on how it’s produced, and the best are colorful — green is from renewable energy, pink from nuclear energy, blue from natural gas with carbon capture. Most of the UK’s hydrogen production right now is actually gray, produced using natural gas without carbon capture, but there is scope for cleaner stuff.

For instance, the UK spent £215 million ($258 million) in 2022 turning off wind farms during times of low demand or due to system constraints, wasting a lot of energy potential. If production facilities were located next to the farms, the UK could keep that renewable power on and use it to make green hydrogen instead.

A hydrogen backbone is going to take some time to develop, of course. Pipes need retrofitting to handle 100 percent hydrogen — which is more prone to leaking and needs transporting at higher pressures — and long-term storage doesn’t really exist yet in the UK. That’s why the National Gas plan to blend low levels of hydrogen with gas makes sense. Blending, as an early use-case, could help boost broader demand for hydrogen and get production up and running.

But blending will be limited and temporary — eventually, we’ll have to stop using natural gas altogether — and Britain has to get its long-term hydrogen plan right.

One area I find concerning is the discussion around using hydrogen for heating. There are a series of trials currently being set up in the UK to explore feasibility, including a hydrogen neighborhood of 300 homes in Fife, Scotland. A decision is expected from the government in 2026 on whether to use hydrogen for domestic heating in the UK. But the country would do well to abandon the idea sooner, keeping hydrogen for industrial applications and focusing on speeding up the deployment of heat pumps for households.

The reason is simple: Hydrogen is a less economic, more resource-intensive method of heating than alternatives such as heat pumps and solar thermal. A recent study found that using hydrogen for heating could nearly double the cost of heating a home by the end of the decade compared with natural gas. Sure, installing heat pumps is an eye-wateringly expensive undertaking, but so is converting to green hydrogen, which will require every distribution pipe to be refurbished, every gas-burning appliance to be upgraded and rigorous safety checks to be made.

Heat Pumps vs Hydrogen | Using heat pumps is nearly six times more energy-efficient than heating with green hydrogen

Michael Liebreich, founder of BloombergNEF, points out that converting every gas-heated home in the UK to hydrogen would cost £190 billion, and even that is a “hopelessly optimistic” estimate. The actual total could well be twice the price. A mass heat pump conversion would cost about the same — between £182 billion and £302 billion — but it would come with cooling capabilities, much greater efficiency and the added bonus of being deployable right now.

So by all means, let’s blend. But let’s stay focused on the big picture, too, electrifying heat as fast as possible and building a hydrogen backbone that makes sense.

Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.

Credit: Bloomberg

Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.
first published: Feb 27, 2023 12:04 pm