Hydrogen for home heating: a load of hot air?

At our recent meeting on heat pumps, some residents asked whether burning hydrogen gas would be a better way to heat our homes without contributing to global warming.  

Hydrogen doesn’t produce CO2 when burned. And it can be piped through the existing gas network like the gas we use today, yes?   

An article in The Times looks closely at the UK’s hydrogen trials and shows that the gas isn’t the easiest route to low-carbon home heating. On the contrary, it’s the most difficult. 

It’s a long and interesting article by reporter Ben Cooke that draws on two trials in the North of England.  

One of the core issues is linked to fundamental physics and economics. Hydrogen seems a cheap answer to heating our homes but will be much, much more expensive.

The article quotes energy researcher Jan Rosenow, who reviewed 32 independent studies and found not a single one said that hydrogen will be cheaper than heat pumps or district heating. 

The Times writes: 

One of these studies showed that by 2050 hydrogen boilers could be between two and three times more expensive to run than heat pumps, which are already cheaper to run than boilers thanks to this year’s increased gas prices.  

Rosenow explains that hydrogen boilers will always cost more to run than heat pumps because they are less efficient. The only carbon-free way to make hydrogen is to run a renewably generated current through water, a process that produces about 0.7 units of hydrogen energy for every one unit of electricity.  

Heat pumps, by contrast, produce between three and four units of heat for every one unit of electricity. This means that the same amount of electricity can generate about five times as much heat via a heat pump as via the production and combustion of hydrogen. 

(The same argument was made by local resident Jonathan Waxman at our heat pump meeting.)

The Times article details many more problems with hydrogen.   

Here’s another: everyone in a neighbourhood would have to switch to the new gas on the same day. Anyone whose boiler couldn’t use hydrogen would lose the ability to heat their home. But none of today’s gas boilers work with 100% hydrogen. So every single person in the area would need a new gas boiler before any switch could be made.   

Hydrogen is widely reckoned to be useful in some industrial applications. But the Times article shows that for nationwide domestic heating, the challenges are very considerable indeed.   

 For more info about heat pumps in Hampstead Garden Suburb read our article in Suburb News.

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Article created:20th December 2022