IET report on the Transition to Hydrogen for UK Heat

The IET report ‘Transitioning to hydrogen: Assessing the engineering risks and uncertainties’ was released today. Experts from a cross-professional working group of UK engineering institution led by the IET have assessed the engineering risks and uncertainties from repurposing the UK gas network to hydrogen. This report concludes there is no reason why cannot be achieved, but identifies some engineering risks and uncertainties which need to be addressed.

What are the engineering risks and uncertainties? Hydrogen experience is limited to industrial applications only and there are no examples of networks anywhere in the world supplying 100% hydrogen to homes and business. To make a significant contribution to meeting the UK’s 2050 GHG (greenhouse gas) target, large-scale deployment to homes and businesses would need to be implemented over the next 30 years. This is ambitious and so any decision to proceed will need to be sufficiently compelling to compensate for the lack of experience and comparatively short timescale. The report identifies 15 core questions that need to be addressed before large-scale deployment can be achieved.

Why hydrogen for heating? Although natural gas has helped reduce the UK’s CO2 emissions by displacing coal and oil (which produce around twice as much CO2), it has now become the largest source of carbon emissions in the UK: 

  • 40% of electricity generation is from gas

  • 85% of homes are heated by gas

  • 50% of the energy used for industry and businesses is from gas

When combusted, hydrogen produces no CO2 and so it offers the prospect of a low-carbon alternative to natural gas. Repurposing the existing gas network to pure hydrogen could contribute significantly to the decarbonisation of the UK and reducing the current dependency on natural gas.

Angus Mcintosh. Director of Energy Futures at SGN and a Director of SHFCA, said ‘Hydrogen offers a credible and exciting opportunity to decarbonise across all sectors. The UK has all the ingredients to lead the way, from natural resources to engineering excellence. The quantity and quality of research being undertaken reflects the opportunity. We must continue this great work, demonstrate it and deliver the framework for change. All the while ensuring we are meeting customers wants and needs.

Hydrogen compares well with other low-carbon heat technologies. The diagram below compares the primary heating technologies suitable for large-scale retrofit deployment against several criteria. While the comparison is subjective and generalised, it is not meant to indicate that one form of heat technology is “better” than another but to illustrate the different features and to highlight the potential benefits of hydrogen. A full explanation can be found in the IET report.

Other factors that make hydrogen a strong alternative to natural gas include:

–         Hydrogen allows much of our existing gas infrastructure to be used. Most of the local “iron mains” gas network will have been replaced with polyethylene pipe by 2030, which can be used with hydrogen. This means most of the necessary street works would have already been done.

–         Hydrogen can be used by industry, businesses and homes. Existing gas boilers in the home will need to be replaced but this can be facilitated by future sales of “hydrogen-ready” gas boilers, which can be readily converted to hydrogen. Many industrial applications should be able to convert from gas to hydrogen, although others may require blending with biomethane, for example. 

–         Hydrogen can be produced in large volumes. Production from gas reforming has been used by industry for years, but a by-product is CO2, which needs to be captured and stored. Modern reforming technology can have high CO2 capture, but experience is limited. Hydrogen can also be produced from electrolysis but the power would need to come from renewable energy sources, which is likely to be higher cost.

This IET report clearly shows that from an engineering perspective the large-scale deployment of hydrogen can be achieved safely. Delivering Scotland’s world-leading ambition to achieve net zero emissions by 2045 will require us to tackle the ‘hard to treat’ emissions from heat, transport and industry, and this is where hydrogen can play a significant role. Work to fully understand any remaining engineering and energy system risks and uncertainties must now begin, along with a wider engagement with civic society to show how hydrogen can support the just transition to a low carbon economy.