Grassroots versus big corporations power struggle

Dave Toke on the virtues of heat pumps over blue hydrogen

Reports suggest that domestic heating bills are likely to be around three times their current average rate in order to pay for so-called ‘blue hydrogen’ supplies. Blue hydrogen is produced from natural gas with a large proportion of the carbon dioxide captured and stored. It is competing for public funding resources with other, more efficient low carbon solutions such as heat pumps. The fact that blue hydrogen will be such an expensive solution to decarbonise heating is likely to tip the scales in favour of strategies that place more emphasis on fitting heat pumps to heat buildings.

The information about how expensive blue hydrogen is likely to be has been given little coverage amidst the steady stream of reports promoting blue hydrogen that are financed by the oil and gas industry. Instead, attention has been focussed on the costs of installing heat pumps, its key technological competitor in the heating market. Yet after installation, the running costs of domestic heat pumps should be broadly the same for consumers compared to supplying hot water using natural gas boilers.

A recently published paper in the journal Energy and Environmental Science which compared the costs of blue hydrogen with natural gas heating said that: “the cost of a H2-based heat supply is, on average, three times more expensive than natural gas at present”.

This conclusion matches other accounts. Analysis published in Petroleum Economist reports that large parts of the costs of producing blue hydrogen are taken up by carbon capture and associated costs and the costs of converting methane into hydrogen. On the other hand, the ‘feedstock’ costs of the natural gas are inflated by the fact that 25 per cent more methane is needed to meet a given amount of heating than a natural gas system. That is because the steam reformation system is only 80 per cent efficient. The gas distribution system will also need to undergo expensive refurbishment, at least to boost gas pressures.

All of this will raise the excessive cost of supplying heat to the consumer. This reality is not mentioned by gas industry lobbyists, who have persuaded the Government that their blue hydrogen strategy is a serious one. Instead, the focus on making sure new boilers are ‘hydrogen ready’ allows an impression to be spread that boiler adjustment is practically all that is needed to switch to blue hydrogen. In fact, this is only a very small part of the requirement for a national heating system supplied by blue hydrogen.

Green groups have been very critical of the Government’s backing for blue hydrogen. They see it as a means of continuing the oil and gas industry with its ‘fugitive’ methane releases during production and transportation, incomplete decarbonisation during hydrogen production and cross-subsidisation for ongoing unabated natural gas production and sale. It is also likely to be a very long time before substantial parts of the heating system will be served by blue hydrogen, given the range of issues with the gas distribution and carbon capture infrastructure, not to mention issues of whether pipes, gas meters and other parts of the system are compatible.

The difficulties and costs of rolling out the blue hydrogen system need to be compared to the potential for rapid rollout of energy efficiency and heat pumps. Certainly, the heat pump rollout needs substantial funding through incentives for installation in existing buildings, and urgently needs planning law reform to ensure that gas heating in new houses is banned. Heat pumps, which multiply the electric power input using heat from the environment, use energy 3-4 times more efficiently than heating systems using hydrogen.

There is a battle going between the grassroots movement and the big corporations. The corporations want top-down, complicated, polluting projects like blue hydrogen and nuclear power that, at best, will take a long time to be delivered. The grassroots movement wants decentralised, cleaner and cheaper solutions that can be rapidly rolled out.

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