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Is hydrogen the solution to curbing household emissions?

Is hydrogen the solution to curbing household emissions?

Is hydrogen the solution to curbing household emissions?

Posted: 23/07/2021

We recently spoke about the future homes standard and the need for more guidance if we’re going to hit the 2025 targets for new build carbon emissions. It looks like heat pumps and heat networks are set to play a big role in the future of our built environment. But what part does hydrogen have to play in our long term future?

In this blog, we’re going to cast a lens over the research, looking at the benefits and the problems associated with this green resource.

The need for green

Up to a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from central heating. The UK government has taken action to address this by introducing new legislation that bans the installation of new gas boilers by 2025 and has imposed regulations on new builds that will force them to be 75-80% more carbon-efficient by that same date.

Much emphasis has been put on heat pumps as the replacement for the traditional gas boiler, but what about hydrogen? Depending on which expert you ask, you’ll get radically different answers. For some, hydrogen is seen as the great hope in the decarbonisation of our energy grid. For others, it’s seen as an unrealistic option that requires a large-scale replacement of our current energy infrastructure.

The benefits of hydrogen

The big draw of hydrogen boilers is that it’s a clean fuel source. If used properly, consumers will enjoy all the energy benefits of gas without any of the carbon output. Not only is it environmentally friendly but hydrogen is in plentiful supply on Earth. Hydrogen can either be extracted from natural gas or made by electrolysing water.

All positives if we’re to reach the UK target of net-zero by 2050.

Is it all too good to be true?

Hydrogen is a great clean energy source in theory, but there are some drawbacks. First and foremost is the lack of infrastructure we have in place for it. Our current iron gas pipes would need to be replaced due to the capacity for hydrogen to make them brittle and cause ruptures. This would likely entail a massive national effort to rip out and replace our current gas system on both the household level and at the level of energy providers and power stations.

Hydrogen is also volatile and can ignite much more easily than natural gas. In addition to the workload of replacing our energy infrastructure, we’d also need to develop new safeguards and technology to ensure homes and power stations are safe in the event of leaks or malfunctions.

Hydrogen is not easily stored, complicating any effort to run the energy grid on it. The option of storing hydrogen in pressurised fuel cells is not attractive. It’s four times more voluminous than other hydrocarbons – such as natural gas, so it requires heavy compression before it can be stored in such containers. Other options include storage in vast underground salt caverns or via an extremely expensive process of liquifying it.

Hydrogen power in action

SGN Energy is currently running a hydrogen-powered pilot project called H100 Fife. The project will power several homes in Levernmouth, Fife, with . Due to begin in 2022, the system is designed and built to ensure the same high safety and reliability standards that are expected of our current gas system. This will be the first project of its kind where domestic homes will be powered by renewable hydrogen, putting it at the cutting edge of our road towards net-zero energy.

As the rest of the country works towards the future homes target in 2025 and the broader net-zero targets in 2050, many will be watching the H100 Fife project with great interest. If it can be made a success and the challenges of using hydrogen as a widescale fuel source can be overcome, hydrogen will start to be taken seriously as an alternative to some of the other carbon free energy sources out there.

What does this mean for the built environment?

For the time being, not much. Hydrogen boilers aren’t available for households and they’re not likely to be on the radars of developers until there’s a viable infrastructure in place. Our current boilers have capacity to receive 20% hydrogen as part of the natural gas mix, but there’s still much work to do before affordable boilers capable of processing 100% hydrogen are available.

For the time being, heat pumps, heat networks and renewable electricity will remain the weapons of choice when it comes to the phase-out of fossil fuel energy sources.

That’s not to say hydrogen can’t play a big role in our energy production in the future. But as of now, there are several obstacles to overcome before we get there. The H100 project in Fife shows promise and will be a litmus test for the technology. Likewise, exciting research is taking place all over the world, including at the Fuel Cell Innovation Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University, all of which could have massive implications, not just for renewable energies, but for transport too.

If you’re looking for advice on your project, our team can help you make the best choice for your build. Get in touch with us today to arrange a consultation.