UK Hydrogen Policy Damaging Energy Security

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Just as the world wakes up to the huge potential of natural hydrogen deposits, which could fuel the planet “for hundreds of years,” the UK government has dropped plans to replace home gas boilers with hydrogen alternatives.

The US Geological Survey concluded in April 2023 that there is probably enough accessible hydrogen in the earth’s subsurface to meet total global demand for “hundreds of years”. In May, Française De l’Énergie and researchers from GeoRessources made Europe’s biggest discovery to date, finding 15pc hydrogen content at a depth of 1,100 metres.

Domestic heating accounts for about 17% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and heating industry lobbyists have been pushing Hydrogen for years, but the UK industry is doing little to train the workforce in the complexities of new heating tech, or to prepare suitable products ready for the switch to hydrogen, originally scheduled by 2030 but now 2035.

Grant Shapps, UK energy minister, has indicated it is “less likely” that hydrogen would be routinely piped into people’s homes, amid growing concerns about cost, safety and perpetuating a reliance on fossil fuels.

However the use of fossil fuels continues to increase globally, and other carbon reduction techniques could be used.

Shapps said: “There was a time when people thought … you will have something that just looks like a gas boiler and we will feed hydrogen into it.”

He added: “It’s not that we won’t do trials. We will. But I think hydrogen will be used for storing energy.” Energy firms have insisted that hydrogen can be safe and engaged in concerted lobbying of both the government and Labour to convince them of its merits.

But the assurances have failed to convince people asked to take part in large-scale trials of the technology.

Meanwhile, there are limited incentives to encourage UK heating engineers to specialise in low flow temperature heating.  Dr Richard Lowes, senior associate, Regulatory Assistance Project, said the existing UK heating market had focused largely on combination boilers, as they were easier to install and quicker to fit than lower carbon systems because they need fewer design calculations during specification to ensure effective performance.

Systems such as solar thermal or heat pumps, which operate at lower flow temperatures, also require hot water storage, and heat loss from storage renders many systems useless.

By comparison, the price of boiler installation is much higher in Germany due to a focus by engineers in the country around designing system boilers which include combining hot water storage with functions such as weather compensation and other design considerations, Dr Lowes said. These features are intended to ensure a more efficient operation.

The existing UK installer market has two different types of HVAC engineer – those focused solely on providing and servicing simple gas or oil boilers, and design engineers looking at ensuring specific flow temperatures to increase the levels of condensing and also improving the coefficient of performance (CoP) that is used to measure performance and efficiency of heat pumps.

New Boiler Plus standards in 2018 required all new or replacement gas boilers fitted in England to meet minimum efficiency standards of 92 per cent.  There are questions from across the industry over how well these efficiency requirements have been enforced.

The standards are under consultation by the government  to ensure stricter compliance and encourage installers to design future boilers that are not overpowered for domestic needs. This would ensure any new or replacement boilers can run at an optimal performance to reduce energy demand in homes.

Dr Lowes told Heating & Ventilation News that these ambitions were being reflected in the market where a large number of heating manufacturers were now offering heat pumps systems along with boilers.  Other companies that were presently looking at offering or developing hydrogen boiler systems for the UK market were also simultaneously focused on launching high performance heat pumps, he added.  These high performance systems are designed to be used in buildings with lower levels of thermal efficiency.

But the issue of Hydrogen replacing natural gas has become entangled in debates about green energy subsidies.   Hence the UK government reluctance to push Hydrogen, despite needing to plan now for carbon reduction in 7 years.

Viacheslav Zgonnik, a geologist, thinks white geologic hydrogen could be so cheap and abundant that it conquers the energy market.

“We think that we can reach $1 a kilo in the long-run and provide baseload power 24/7. It can be compressed for storage in steel tanks. It is not that expensive,” he told The Daily Telegraph.

If so, that raises awkward questions about the huge subsidies going into green variants (from electrolysis) and blue variants (natural gas with carbon capture).

Green hydrogen costs $3 to $4 today. It will become cheaper with scale, but getting much below $2 will be hard: you currently lose 70pc of the original energy in the making, and it requires a massive electrolyser industry that does not yet exist.

Scientists have long argued that pockets of exploitable geological hydrogen are more abundant than hitherto supposed.

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