Dave Toke says stop wasting money on non-renewables
The announcement by the German government that their hydrogen strategy will include support for so-called “blue” hydrogen as a transitional measure must be regarded as a huge setback for a sustainable energy transition. Essentially what is being proposed is the propping up of oil and gas rather than the alternative – an energy efficient decentralised system based on renewable energy.
The danger is that the British Government will now follow suit.
Blue hydrogen is hydrogen produced from natural gas with the carbon captured and stored – with the caveat of course that the process, for cost reasons, is unlikely to abate more than 85% of the carbon content of the natural gas.
Essentially, what the natural gas industry will succeed in doing with blue hydrogen is preserve their multinational gas extraction business by the trick of branding their product differently in different countries. Gas from the same fields will be either branded (further downstream) as “blue” or nothing at all (in other words, normal carbon-producing stuff).
Of course, it will only be in a few places that the gas will be marketed as “blue”. I am sure lots of fancy consultants will be employed to convince us that really blue gas comes from particular places, but the reality is that in a complex world of international gas trading such distinctions will be window dressing.
Instead of spending extra investment to kick start the blue hydrogen distribution business, we should be spending it on building up energy supplies from renewable energy. In addition to this, in order to use this energy most efficiently, we should be working to make sure that buildings have the most energy-efficient systems as possible.
The sort of scheme we should be supporting – indeed being made mandatory – is like one being piloted in Wales. This involves local houses being power systems in themselves that generate, store and use the energy efficiently. A scheme in Swansea involves energy-efficient housing being built complete with solar pv panels, batteries and heat pumps. This will lead to a system that, because of the efficiency of heat pumps, results in carbon emissions that are 4x (yes, four times) less than using “blue” hydrogen. Not only that, but the system will also manage fluctuating renewable energy supplies in a way that avoids extra investment in peak power plants and also reduces investment in transmission and distribution wires.
The Swansea scheme will involve 3,300 new homes and retrofits for a further 7,000 homes. Energy bills for the inhabitants will drop to almost zero compared to homes where these improvements have not been made. The money for this innovative project will come from the Welsh Government via the Swansea City Deal.
It may be difficult to retrofit some existing houses with heat pumps, although fitting them to district heating systems powered by large scale heat pumps may often be possible. In such cases electric storage heaters can be deployed. These can also be managed so that their electricity use can be timed to fit in with the variability of renewable energy, so reducing investment in power plant and distribution wires.
Of course, hydrogen has important uses (although not in space heating where it is inefficient compared to renewable electricity, especially with heat pumps). Important uses for green hydrogen include making steel, fertiliser, shipping fuel, cement and storing renewable electricity; but here we should be making investments in green hydrogen – hydrogen supplied from renewable energy via electrolysis – not wasting the money on propping up the oil and gas companies.
We face a crucial crossroads here. Do we want to channel lots of money into propping up the existing gas industry, or instead use it to build up markets for decentralised sustainable energy?