Reports suggest that domestic heating bills are likely to soar upwards to around three times their current average rate in order to pay for so-called ‘blue hydrogen’ supplies.
Blue hydrogen is produced from natural gas with a large proportion of the carbon dioxide captured and stored. As a technology it is competing for public funding resources with other more efficient low carbon solutions such as heat pumps. The fact that blue hydrogen will be such an expensive solution to decarbonise heating is likely to tip the scales in favour of strategies that place more emphasis on fitting heat pumps to heat buildings.
The information, about how expensive blue hydrogen is likely to be, has been given little coverage amidst the steady stream of reports (backed by the oil and gas industry) promoting blue hydrogen. Instead attention has been focussed on the costs of installing heat pumps, a key main transition technological competitor to blue hydrogen in the heating market. Yet after installation, the running costs of domestic heat pumps should be broadly the same for consumers compared to supplying hot water using natural gas boilers.
A recently published paper in the journal Energy and Environmental Science which compared the costs of blue hydrogen with natural gas heating said that ‘the cost of a H2-based heat supply is on average, three times more expensive than natural gas at present.’
This conclusion gels with other accounts. For instance, analysis published in Petroleum Economist reports that large parts of the costs of producing blue hydrogen are taken up by carbon capture and associated costs and the costs of reforming the methane into hydrogen. On the other hand the ‘feedstock’ costs, that is the costs of the natural gas, are inflated by the fact that 25 per cent more methane is needed to meet a given amount of heating than a natural gas system. That is because the steam reformation system is only 80 per cent efficient. Added to this the gas distribution system will need to undergo expensive refurbishment, at least to boost gas pressures.
All of this will contribute to the excessive cost of supplying heat to the consumer. This reality is not mentioned by gas industry lobbyists who have persuaded the Government that their blue hydrogen strategy is a serious one. Instead, the focus on talk of making sure new boilers are ‘hydrogen ready’ allows an impression to be spread that boiler adjustment is practically all that is needed to switch to blue hydrogen. In fact this is only a very small part of what would be needed for a national heating system supplied by blue hydrogen
Green groups have been very critical of the Government’s backing for blue hydrogen. They see it as a means of carrying on the oil and gas industry despite greenhouse-inducing ‘fugitive’ methane releases duing production and transportation, incomplete decarbonisation during hydrogen production and cross subsidisation for continuing unabated natural gas production and sale. On top of this it is likely to be a very long time before substaintial parts of the heating system will be served by blue hydrogen given a range of issues with the gas distribution and carbon capture infrastructure, not to mention issues of whether pipes, gas meters and other parts of the system are compatible.
The difficulties and costs of rolling out a blue hydrogen heating system need to be compared to the potential for rapid roll-out of energy efficiency and heat pumps. Certainly the roll-out needs substantial funding. This includes incentives for heat pump installation in existing buildings and urgent need to reform planning law to ensure that gas heating in new houses is banned. Heat pumps , which multiply the electricity input by using heat from the environment, use energy 3-4 times more efficiently than heating systems using hydrogen. As more and more of the electricity comes from low carbon sources, so the more effective heat pumps become as a means of pushing energy transition forward.
There is a battle going between the grass roots environmental movement and the big corporations who are interested mainly in their own interests rather than implementing an energy transition strategy that works best to achieve environmental and social objectives. The big corporations want top-down complicated, polluting projects including blue hydrogen and nuclear power that at best will take a long time to be delivered. The grass roots movement want decentralised, cleaner and cheaper solutions that can be rapidly rolled out.
Of course it is possible that the high costs to the consumer of rolling out blue hydrogen could be ameliorated by the Government transferring funds from taxpayers and consumers to pay off the big corporations and their sub-companies. However in doing so the much greener, more efficient green energy alternative technologies including renewables, energy efficiency and heat pumps will be starved of resources.
But in the UK the odds are often stacked high in favour of the big corporations. Only a bottom up movement can ensure that they are defeated in support of a sustainable energy strategy.
By David Toke, with thanks for help to Jan Rosenow