Hydrogen is a credible option to help decarbonise the energy system and its largest potential to contribute to it is as a low carbon fuel for heat in buildings and industrial processes.
That’s according to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which suggests the government should explore the option and commit to developing a low carbon heat strategy within the next three years to encourage commercial investment in producing hydrogen.
It says with a planned approach, it is likely the use of the low carbon fuel will enable UK emissions to reach lower levels by 2050 than could be achieved without it.
Its latest report, which looks at the role of hydrogen in a low carbon economy, adds hydrogen could play a “valuable role” as part of a heating solution for UK buildings, primarily in combination with heat pumps as part of ‘hybrid heat pump’ systems.
It finds heat pumps, powered by increasingly low carbon electricity, offer the potential to provide heat efficiently for most of the time, with hydrogen boilers contributing mainly as back-up to meet peak demands on the coldest winter days.
It states deployment of this combination of hydrogen and heat pumps “could almost completely displace fossil fuel use in buildings”, enabling the energy system “to reach very low emissions”.
That should, however, be combined with greater energy efficiency, cheap low carbon power generation and electrified transport to ensure hydrogen makes an “important contribution” to decarbonisation.
The cheapest scenario suggests a mix of installing hydrogen boilers and electrifying heating would cost the UK around £28 million a year between 2030 and 2050 – and could be managed without increasing consumer bills.
The report suggests while production and use of hydrogen is “generally less efficient” than electrification, hydrogen is more readily storable than electricity at very large scale.
This means hydrogen could replace natural gas – and potentially oil – in parts of the energy system where full electrification is very difficult, disruptive or expensive.
However, production of the low carbon fuel at scale will rely on the deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) – but deploying hydrogen from gas with CCS in very large quantities could mean the emissions savings may be insufficient to meet long term emissions targets.
The Committee, therefore, suggests hydrogen is best used selectively, where it adds most value alongside widespread electrification, improvements to energy and resource efficiency and use of CCS in industry and on bioenergy.
That means using hydrogen where the alterative is continuing to burn unabated fossil fuels or where there are limits to feasible electrification.
CCC Chair Lord Deben says it is time for the government “to move from theory to practice”.
He added: “Hydrogen has the potential to contribute to near-zero carbon energy emissions if used strategically. The government must now decide whether it wishes to develop a UK hydrogen option, taking decisions now that will see the first deployment in the 2020s. This must be in parallel with efforts to improve energy efficiency, build further low-cost renewables and get carbon capture and storage underway.
“Most exciting of all is the prospect of producing low carbon heat; using smart hybrid heat pumps in combination with natural gas in the short term, with the potential for hydrogen in the long term.”
A spokesperson from BEIS said: “As we strive to meet our ambitious climate change targets and deliver value for money, the government will continue to work with industry and academia to understand the options that hydrogen offers to our future energy system.
“Alongside funding for hydrogen, we also support innovation in carbon capture, a key enabler for low carbon hydrogen. Our first ever global summit in Edinburgh next week will bring together key players in the carbon capture field.”
The Committee’s key messages in the report are:
• Hydrogen can be a strong complement to electrification
The possibility of producing hydrogen by a low carbon route and storing it at scale makes it a potentially valuable complement to electrification in reducing emissions from energy use to a very low level, cost-effectively, by 2050. Production of low carbon hydrogen at scale will rely on deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Used selectively, alongside widespread electrification and improvements to energy efficiency, hydrogen has potentially valuable roles in replacing natural gas (e.g. for heating buildings on colder winter days, industrial process heat and back-up power generation) and liquid fuels (e.g. in heavy transport). With a planned approach, it is likely that the use of hydrogen will enable UK emissions to reach lower levels by 2050 than could be achieved without it.
•The need for action on hydrogen
If hydrogen is to play a substantial long-term role, progress towards deployment of low carbon hydrogen at scale must start now. Deployment of hydrogen should start in a ‘low-regrets’ way over the next decade, recognising that even an imperfect roll-out is likely to be better in the long term than a ‘wait-and-see’ approach that fails to develop the option properly.
•The need for a heat decarbonisation strategy
The largest potential for hydrogen to contribute to decarbonisation is as a low carbon fuel for heat in buildings and/or industrial processes. These uses will also determine hydrogen infrastructure requirements, for example relating to the future of gas distribution networks. Hydrogen’s future role therefore rests on strategic certainty about how the decarbonisation of heat will be delivered in the UK.
It also relies on the implementation of CCS, given its importance for low carbon hydrogen production at scale. A commitment should be made now to develop a fully -fledged UK strategy for decarbonised heat within the next three years, including clear signals on the future use of the gas grid in the UK.
Deployment of hydrogen can provide a cost-effective option to displace fossil fuels in applications where emissions reductions would otherwise be impractical and/or expensive. This will be important in reaching near-full decarbonisation of the whole energy system. As part of a package – alongside energy efficiency, cheap low-carbon power generation and electrification of transport – hydrogen can contribute to deep decarbonisation of energy at lower costs than we have previously estimated.
A priority for the 2020s should be to demonstrate hydrogen’s value by deploying hydrogen technologies in a way that breaks this cycle of inaction: