Speech for UKERC annual assembly.
How have we got to a situation where we are discussing the idea of converting the gas grid to hydrogen? Well quite simply it was realised that decarbonising heat using proven and known technologies would be very hard.
No buildings can use fossil oil or gas for heating by 2050 under UK climate targets, but currently around 24 million do. A significant roll-out of household energy efficiency, major growth in heat networks and a rapid growth in heat pumps was seen to be needed with the majority of heat provided by electricity often using heat pumps.
Yes that does look tricky.
The Paris agreement means that actually our target date to remove fossil fuel heating looks more like 2035. Yes, very tricky indeed.
Since we came to this realisation that decarbonising heat may be quite tricky, we’ve seen the failure of the Renewable Heat Incentive and spending on domestic energy efficiency savaged.
We are now going backwards with emissions from buildings up two years in a row and tens of thousands of homes connected to the gas grid each year.
In the meantime in response to the threat of decarbonisation, as I have discovered first hand through my research on incumbency in the heat sector, the gas industry has mobilised, united in action and become a significant lobbying force. The industry has also directed cash at innovation activities to support this future. Much of this has promoted the role of hydrogen for heating without any recognition of the uncertainty hydrogen has.
When I say industry, I primarily mean gas networks and appliance manufacturers. However interestingly the shale gas lobby, UK Onshore oil and gas, has also been leading some gas industry coordination and promoting hydrogen through the so called ‘decarbonised gas alliance’.
Industry has created a fig leaf to cover their vested fossil fuel interests. Government has taken the fig leaf as a silver bullet.
But is it such a bad idea? Well yes.
It comes down to four fundamental issues.
Carbon, energy security, economics and a reliance on CCS.
The only way to produce hydrogen at scale to decarbonise heat in the UK is to use natural gas, convert it to hydrogen and capture and then store the carbon. Hydrogen can be produced from electricity, but electricity is expensive and you lose half the energy in the conversion process.
Converting the grid to hydrogen using natural gas would actually need more gas than we currently use because of conversion losses.
Northern Gas Networks suggest 47% more gas would be needed.
When we’re expecting to be importing all of our gas by 2040, even with some extreme shale gas growth which seems unlikely, that’s a huge import reliance situation. And while the idea may sometimes seem cost effective in the short term, the reliance on imports would clearly have significant trade balance impacts and potential security issues too.
So hydrogen doesn’t tick the energy security or economics boxes.
We need to get off gas eventually and we might as well do it now.
On carbon reduction. Due to losses and process emissions, potential emission reductions I have seen range from around 60 to 80% compared to natural gas. Significant yes, but not near our decarbonisation goal. So hydrogen can’t tick the Paris box either.
And finally, the whole thing relies on carbon capture and storage. Something which can hardly be described as commercially proven.
There are other technical issues too, new gas cookers and boilers need to be made, the gas distribution network upgraded, new CCS and hydrogen transmission networks and of course large scale hydrogen production facilities. Not to mention a requirement for neighbourhood by neighbourhood conversions.
It does all sound a bit far-fetched doesn’t it?
Heat decarbonisation is hard, but going for the latest incumbent-promoted-carbon-techno-fix isn’t going to deliver a sustainable heat future.
We need to focus on known technologies to reduce heat demand and electrify heat with efficient heat pump systems as has been done elsewhere. In doing so we can build on the electricity sector transformation which offers cheap renewable electricity and increasingly cost effective storage.
UKERC is interested in sustainable future energy systems. Converting the UK’s gas grid to hydrogen is not a sustainable option.
Rather than considering hydrogen, we need to make electric heating great again.
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