ERP Report on the Role of Hydrogen in the UK Energy System

The Energy Research Partnership has released a new report on the Role of Hydrogen in the UK Energy System. This report concludes that the biggest challenges for widespread use are where large volumes of hydrogen will come from and how it could be decarbonised. Concerns are raised around the associated costs and deliverability of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) infrastructure that will be essential to handle the large volumes of CO2 from the steam methane reforming plant.  Upstream emissions from the extraction of natural gas are significant and new technologies will be needed to produce zero-carbon hydrogen, if it is to play a significant role in the long-term. Widespread use of hydrogen requires deliberate intervention, which includes a strategic, long-term plan to make hydrogen zero-carbon and to address challenges, including its impact on energy security.

Hydrogen is already entering the energy system and appears to be a convincing pathway to decarbonise heat and transport. Its widespread use requires deliberate intervention, which includes a strategic, long-term plan to make hydrogen zero-carbon and to address challenges, including its impact on energy security. The biggest challenges are where large volumes of hydrogen will come from and how to decarbonise it. The report highlights concerns around the associated costs and deliverability of the necessary steam methane reforming plant and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) infrastructure needed to handle the large volumes of CO2.

Natural gas will be used to produce a majority of the hydrogen, as it is cheaper than from electricity, but residual emissions from CCS and hydrocarbon extraction are significant and will need to be addressed. Surplus electricity from wind will produce only a small fraction of the hydrogen needed for heat: meeting this demand with electricity alone would require about 70 GW of additional nuclear capacity – seven times current capacity. Replacing natural gas with hydrogen for heating will increase gas consumption and produce more CO2. Some of the increase could be offset by measures to reduce energy demand for heat. Blending into the gas supply provides little carbon reduction, even at high blends, and would be expensive, so switching has to be done by area and straight to 100% hydrogen. Imports of natural gas mean most of the upstream emissions from extraction are likely to be outside the UK. This may be an issue for meeting global climate targets set out in the Paris Agreement. Zero-carbon hydrogen could be imported from sunny regions, such as North Africa, using very-high temperature solar thermal. But these are unlikely to be available to meet early bulk demand.

Hydrogen is already playing a valuable, diffuse role in the energy system and helping to manage the electricity grid, fuel vehicle fleets and industry. These niche applications can develop without hydrogen from natural gas, but will benefit from removing regulatory and market barriers to help them become viable. This report feeds into ERP’s new project on the Transition to Low-carbon Heat, along with a new report on Heating Buildings. The Low-carbon Heat project is looking at options for low-carbon heat, with the aim of providing insight into the governance and timeframe aspects of the trajectory to 2050 for decarbonising domestic and commercial heat. Building on techno-economic analysis of specific heating technologies it will investigate how top-down and bottom-up aspects join up.