By Paul Homewood
There has never been any disagreement that hydrogen can replace natural gas for heating homes. It has always been a question of cost and scalability.
New research by Imperial College has gone into the detail, the first study I have seen to do so. It also looks at whole system costs, including networks, conversion and storage, not just production costs:
Using hydrogen instead of natural gas for heating could help the UK to achieve net carbon-neutrality by 2050, according to new Imperial research.
Currently, non-renewable natural gas from fossil fuels is used to supply half of Europe’s heat demand, with national shares as high as 80 percent in the Netherlands and the UK. However, the UK has committed to developing an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, and one of the ways to achieve this might involve switching natural gas for hydrogen.
Hydrogen has long been hailed as a clean alternative to natural gas. It produces only water when consumed, and it can be distributed through existing infrastructure such as pipelines with minimal adjustments. Yet there is little understanding of the various requirements of this transition, including its cost.
A new Imperial College London study has now, for the first time, laid out a comprehensive assessment of how the UK could convert its national heating network from using natural gas to hydrogen. The paper, published in Energy & Environmental Science, provides a detailed roadmap in setting out the "what," the "where," and the "when" of transitioning.
The research found that transitioning from natural gas to hydrogen for heating could help the UK to reach 2050 targets, but that setting up and running hydrogen-based heating may cost as much as three times that of natural gas.
A key conclusion of this work is that whilst the transition to a hydrogen-based heating system is technically feasible today on the basis of commercially available technologies, there remains an important role for the government to act as market maker to enable this transition.
The researchers say that rolling out a national hydrogen infrastructure can be fast-tracked using a form of hydrogen that cheaper but non-renewable alongside carbon capture and storage while we develop cost-effective renewable-hydrogen options. This form of hydrogen is derived from methane and biomass, which produce some greenhouse gasses, but is cheaper than renewable hydrogen, which requires splitting water using renewable energy sources like wind or solar power.
Alternatively, renewable hydrogen could be combined with existing electric heating capabilities to meet this same goal.
The bottom line, which I have highlighted, is that it hydrogen could potentially triple gas bills for consumers, which would cost a typical household £1000 pa. Below is the relevant conclusion from the report:
The levelised cost of a H2-based heat supply ranges between 5.2–8.6 pence per kWh compared to a natural gas supply at 1.1–2.8 pence per kW h.91 Over the lifetime of the infrastructure, the total cost of heat supply may be greater by a factor of 3 on average compared to present prices
Assuming 20 million homes on the gas grid, this equates to £20bn annually. On top of that are extra costs for commercial and industrial gas users, which will probably add an extra £10bn.
As it is assumed that most of the hydrogen will come from steam reforming, the price of hydrogen will be heavily affected by the price of natural gas. We currently pay about 2.5 pence for gas, which implies the cost of hydrogen will come in at the top side of the range, around 8.6 pence per KWh.
As the report notes, steam reforming does not eliminate all emissions of CO2, even if carbon capture is used. Also there are further emissions upstream from the production and distribution of natural gas. It all raises the question whether such massive costs can be justified by a relatively small amount of emissions saved.
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October 16, 2020 at 11:27AM