The government is trying to decide whether or not to use hydrogen for home heating – but the decision is really all about industry.
On 15 September, the UK government launched a consultation on the desirability of blending hydrogen into the gas supply for home heating. Trials have already shown that it is possible to blend up to 20% hydrogen into the gas supply without needing to alter or change appliances.
But this does not herald a move towards all-hydrogen heating. The government’s Science and Technology Committee has found that replacing gas with hydrogen in our central heating systems would require “a massive and costly programme of replacing boilers, meters and network infrastructure”. And whether this is ultimately worth doing remains a matter of debate. The 2023 annual report from the Climate Change Committee urges the government to focus instead on electrification of home heating.
Helping hard-to-abate sectors
The real intended use for hydrogen is in the so-called “hard-to-abate” sectors such as heavy industry. The 2021 Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy suggests that hydrogen could be a fuel for heating in industrial processes, including iron and steel production. One of the toughest challenges is how to decarbonise processes that require very high temperatures for long periods.
For example, glassmaking needs temperatures of 1500-1700°C, and furnaces can stay at this heat for years. Various manufacturers are exploring lower-carbon glassmaking processes, and at present it seems that electrification will only work for niche uses such as opal glass. But hydrogen has significant potential, either in combination with electrification or on its own. In recent years there have been promising trials of hydrogen for glassmaking, notably by SCHOTT, Saint-Gobain and the NSG Group (which makes Pilkington glass).
Other hard-to-abate areas where hydrogen could be the solution include road freight, shipping and aviation. But we are faced with a chicken-and-egg situation where no industry wants to switch to hydrogen without a predictable, accessible supply, and no businesses want to invest in hydrogen production without a market for it.
This is the problem that putting hydrogen in the national gas supply is intended to solve. It would help by creating a predictable demand for hydrogen. This certainty would then encourage businesses to invest in hydrogen production and storage, “to support the early phases of the hydrogen economy”.
The government’s 2021 hydrogen strategy set a target of 5GW low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030. The 2022 energy security strategy doubled this to 10GW. As of 2020, UK capacity for producing green and blue hydrogen was around 10MW. So, to achieve this ambitious target, production capacity would have to scale up by a factor of a thousand.
This means the UK desperately needs to make low carbon hydrogen an attractive option for investors. It has been working on a proposed hydrogen production business model that will support hydrogen producers “to overcome the operating cost gap between low carbon hydrogen and high carbon fuels”. It will work somewhat like the Contracts for Difference system, which guarantees producers a fixed price.
But there are serious barriers to overcome. Building a hydrogen production facility carries the risk of stranded assets in the event that the UK does not develop a proper hydrogen transport network. Another risk is the availability of renewables – which are needed for producing green hydrogen (via a process of electrolysis). Producing 10GW of green hydrogen would consume around half of the UK’s planned offshore wind capacity, according to news sources. Although the most recent plan only specifies that half the capacity needs to be green, this is still a huge chunk of our wind power – at a time when the offshore wind target looks doubtful and even seemingly good news about onshore wind is not what it seems.
Perhaps all the barriers to hydrogen investment can be summed up in one word: uncertainty. Car manufacturers invested hundreds of millions to meet the 2030 deadline for the petrol and diesel phase-out, only to be hit with a screeching U-turn. The heat pump industry is in a similar position, with a question mark over how worthwhile it is to invest and recruit at this point. These recent examples could make it hard for the hydrogen industry to trust the UK government’s current promises. We will report on the industry’s response to the consultation after it closes on 27 October.