Is hydrogen at hype-cycle peak?




The hype-cycle is one view of technological development


Hydrogen has been popping its head up recently through various reports and is being touted as a potential option for decarbonising heat. I have previously written about hydrogen when I was considering a report from the hydrogen supergen hub last year.

I am concerned that hydrogen is becoming a momentous idea in energy (heat) policy but with limited scrutiny of the real issues. It is also being promoted in general (perhaps primarily) by the existing gas industry. As a result, the focus is moving away from other low-carbon heating sources despite the fact that these technologies i.e heat pumps, district heating, solar thermal are proven around the world. That is not to say these renewable heat solutions are cheap or easy, but they do work.

My previous blog considered issues of the cost of hydrogen appliances (high), the capacity of the network to take a lower calorific value gas (questionable) and the quite fundamental issue of how the hydrogen has been produced (unknown).

The issue of gas safety and the possibility of explosions has also been a concern for the use of hydrogen. Last year, the HyHouse project which was investigating the explosion risk of hydrogen leaks inside a house concluded. It suggested that ‘when leaks occur, the risks associated with hydrogen are comparable to those associated with a leak from natural gas (at the conditions observed at Glenglass Cottage)’ [2]. This project measured the dispersion and build-up of hydrogen within a remote Scottish farmhouse (empty at the time of testing thankfully). Basically the project showed that within this particular leaky single glazed farmhouse, the build of up hydrogen in the case of a leak would have similar risks to a leak of natural gas. As the first study of its kind it produced an interesting albeit limited conclusion to an important question around the explosion risk of hydrogen. This project clearly doesn’t prove hydrogen is safe but has generated some useful data.

On Monday this week, an Ofgem/consumer funded project led by Northern Gas Networks (a GDN) released its 400 page findings to a Westminster audience (Leeds H21 Citygate). The project investigated the prospect of converting the whole of the Leeds gas system to hydrogen, producing the gas via steam methane reformation, capturing and storing the CO2 from the process, injecting the hydrogen into the grid and converting all appliances in Leeds to run on it.

This primarily desk based study, led by a gas network and involving another gas network and consultants with known interests in hydrogen explained that it would be possible ’to decarbonise parts of the existing gas network at minimal additional cost to consumers’ using hydrogen. Did someone mention vested interests or something about Turkeys?

Looking more specifically at the detail paints an interesting and more complex picture than the executive summary would have you believe around, cost, carbon and security, the fundamental energy issues.

Firstly on cost, the study suggests that the capex for the conversion would be £2,054 million with ongoing opex of £139 million. Despite the claim that the project is cost effective, that equates to around £7800 per connection (household or business) of capex plus £525 extra per year per connection of operational costs. This is in reality a very large cost to consumers. The solution in the report is to socialise this cost across all gas consumers through distribution charges resulting in an increase of 7.2% for distribution charges in the RIIO GD2 period. Whilst I appreciate this is a test project, that is a lot of money and just because it’s smeared across consumers doesn’t make it cheap.

On the carbon point, the report suggests that the gas will effectively be decarbonised. However, whilst the project suggests reductions in carbon, these are not an elimination of carbon, something which is generally seen as a requirement for the heating sector in order to allow emissions from other sectors. The table below shows the percentage reduction compared to business as usual and the important number is 59% reduction. This is the full life-cycle based (real world) emission reduction for the project and while still significant doesn’t get near the zero carbon aspiration. The graph below shows where these emissions come from.


graph 1graph 2

(p5 and p223 respectively)

The final point is on energy security and import dependence. The UK is currently a net gas importer. This is likely to continue and the country is expected to become increasingly dependent on imports. Only some heroic assumptions from National Grid for shale gas development suggest that import dependency may decrease[3].

Because the H21 project uses methane as a fuel to produce hydrogen this continues the requirement on gas imports. However, it actually makes it worse as the H21 project explains that because of the inefficiency of the hydrogen formation process, 47% more gas would be required than is currently used by Leeds. Increasing the amount of gas we use is at odds with the idea of reducing import dependence.

Whilst it’s good to see gas networks engaging in these low-carbon issues, with such obvious problems I worry that this is simply a tactic to delay the change to more sustainable forms of heat. A tactic which with the recent national media coverage[4] seems to be working despite the clear issues and realities of hydrogen technologies.

Reducing heat demand through energy efficiency needs to be the absolute priority for the heat team in the new DBEIS and then focussing on proven technologies including district heating in high density areas and distributed heat generation in more rural areas continues to make sense. While hydrogen might be an engineer’s dream, even the gas industry’s own numbers from the H21 work show that it is neither cost effective, fully low carbon or secure. It might be one day, but there is currently no evidence to support this.



[2] HyHouse-



4 responses to “Is hydrogen at hype-cycle peak?”

  1. Dear Richard,
    1) Hyhouse was carried out at three levels of air-tightness. In the last test the property was sealed to about half the the ACH permitted by modern building regulations. The main fact was general concentrations of hydrogen were only X1.2 to X1.6 that of the natural gas gas, despite the injection rate of the hydrogen being X3.4 the natural gas, all on a volumetric basis. This builds upon the work of MN & MN Swain Int Journal of hydrogen Energy in 1992.
    2)There is no reason why hydrogen appliances (given mass production) should be significantly more expensive than natural gas. There are serious papers Rapport SGC 201 Catalytic burners in larger boiler appliances ©Svenskt Gastekniskt Center – Februari 2009 which argue hydrogen catalytic burners could be smaller and cheaper. They certainly can be zero NOx
    3)It is convenient and expedient to manufacture hydrogen from natural gas via Steam Methane Reforming (SMR) and CCS in the near term. It produces the lowest cost hydrogen. In the longer term, having established a hydrogen network, then electrolysis from temporally excess renewable electricity (eg from wind, solar PV, or Severn barrages) would be an excellent feedstock. The CEGB explored hydrogen from electrolysis of nuclear power in 1975 to avoid ramping their stations up and down. An area of solar farm not much greater than a large Australian sheepfarm in the Sahara could provide all UK end use energy.
    4)The feedstock gas could be Fracked gas from central collection lines (eg across the Bowland basin) similar to those in the Marcellous field in the US. This could reduce scope 3 emissions and certainly reduce the cost of imported fuel.
    5)The all up cost of £7800 per connection is broadly similar to internal solid wall insulation. reports the median saving from this as 2200kWh/y ie about 17%. This is only a fraction of what the country needs, and unlike hydrogen (which can be 100% renewable) is fundamentally limited. External solid wall insulation is typically nearer £12000 to £13000 per property.
    6)The report quotes average non-bulk heat losses from district heating as 28%. This would be in accord with my experience. Add a boiler house efficiency (including heat storage) and the efficiencies/carbon savings may not as good as hydrogen Scope 1 +2. Of course the final carbon footprint depends upon that of the input fuel, but Prof McKay asked some serious questions about the Scope 3 footprint of some biomass and food competitive feedstocks. Many of the advantages of carbon saving advantages of CHP disappears as the carbon footprint of electricity (whether local or central) reduces. Without local CCS (extremely difficult) I am not sure what low carbon feedstock could be used in truly large scale district heat.
    7)Hydrogen addresses high temperature process needs, offers low cost interseasonal energy storage (much more feasible/politically acceptable than pumped storage in the UK) and hydrogen for cars (beyond local journeys) LGV and HGV . With 50million tonnes per year of hydrogen produced, CCS already applied to SMR plant and bulk underground hydrogen storage proven even here in the UK (under Teesside) I am not sure why it is unproven. A fully certified hydrogen domestic boiler can be purchased in Bristol today, and other manufacturers are actively developing hydrogen products.
    8) Hopefully the above counters the statement that ‘There is no evidence of hydrogen being cost effective, fully low carbon or secure’. In summary:-
    a)Cost-similar to internal solid wall insulation, with very much larger carbon savings, even from imported LNG.
    b)fully low carbon. The hydrogen can be sourced from a variety of feedstocks. Biomass +CCS could give negative CO2.
    c)Secure. The hydrogen could come from UK renewable energy or UK fracked gas, or even UK biomass.

    Mark Crowther. Technical Director Kiwa Gastec.


  2. Dear Richard,

    I missed out mention of the network capacity issue and hydrogen.
    1)The CV of hydrogen is about 12,000kJ/m3 compared to about 39,500kJ/m3 for natural gas
    2)Therefore the velocity of hydrogen down the pipe has to be about X3.3
    3)This increases the pressure drop down a typical pipe by about 11 to 12.
    4)But the density of hydrogen is only 1/8th of natural gas which very largely offsets this increase.

    In practice FOUR different pipeline simulation programmes and using data within Coulson & Richardson in hand calculations indicates that for the same pressure drop the energy carrying capacity (kW) of a low pressure plastic pipe is about 80% to 85% with hydrogen as it is with natural gas. This shortfall can be easily handled, please see the very detailed modelling in the Leeds report.

    Regards Mark Crowther.


  3. Hi Mark,

    Thank you for your detailed comments, it is an interesting area. On the capacity issue yes I read this in the H21 report.

    I do still believe that there are major issues with generation of H2. Nuclear is clearly not straightforward, shale gas is a big unknown in the UK and biomass resource is very limited. Increasing demand for natural gas does not seem sensible to me.

    I should have also said that I think there should be much greater R and D into hydrogen.

    all the best



  4. […] on how tightly emissions are controlled during shale gas production, however, this might only cut emissions by 59% compared to fossil gas. The figure also depends on what share of CO2 is captured, with 100% […]


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