Government must lay the groundwork now for decarbonising heat in the coming decades, say expert advisors
For those who have kept even half an eye on UK decarbonisation efforts over the last few years, it won't come as surprise to hear that while the electricity network is going green at a relatively healthy clip, progress tackling emissions from industry, heat, and transport is lagging.
These hard-to-abate, energy-hungry sectors can be partially decarbonised by electrification and efficiency gains, but those solutions alone will not be enough to deliver zero emissions.
Enter hydrogen. As the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government's official climate advisors, point out today, hydrogen is a "credible" low or even zero carbon energy source for the UK. It could replace natural gas in parts of the energy system, power heavy goods vehicles, cars and ships over long distances, and fuel heavy industry with zero emissions.
So what's the catch? According to the CCC, there's currently no plan to systematically bring the costs of hydrogen technologies down and scale infrastructure across the country. That plan needs to be put in place now, say the government advisors, if we are to have the option of developing hydrogen technology to scale through the 2020s at an affordable cost.
It's the age old chicken-and-egg dilemma. What comes first? Carmakers won't manufacture hydrogen cars without hydrogen fuel stations for their customers to use. Energy suppliers won't install hydrogen-based heat networks without a reliable fuel supply. Industries won't invest in a hydrogen-friendly production line without the fuel source to run it.
But hydrogen producers won't invest in delivering the fuel at scale without a signal the market demand is ready and waiting for its grand commercial entrance. There are some trial heat network schemes springing up across the country, a handful of hydrogen refuelling stations for cars emerging around London and the South East, and a flicker of interest in the fuel from forward-thinking industrial firms. But without both sides of the embryonic sector getting a big kick up the proverbial, progress on the UK's hydrogen economy risks going nowhere fast.
"There isn't a market for hydrogen at the moment - we haven't got the supply and we haven't got the demand," admits Chris Stark, CEO of the CCC. "So it's been difficult to see a way through where we are today to where we need to get to by 2050."
The CCC is today calling on the government to draw up a clear strategy for low-carbon heat within the next three years, including prospects for hydrogen, to encourage commercial investment in hydrogen production and set in place the infrastructure necessary to deliver deep decarbonisation in the coming decades.
Central to the CCC's vision of a "credible" hydrogen economy for the UK is using the fuel as a "well planned partner" to those other stalwarts of decarbonisation - electrification and energy efficiency - rather than as a wholesale replacement for fossil fuels. That will require a step-by-step approach for its introduction, the report stresses, with government laying the foundations now for more radical action later down the line.
For instance, at the core of the CCC's vision for decarbonising domestic heat is the use of hybrid heat pumps to act as a stepping stone to the use of hydrogen in the 2030s. "In this report we are saying that it is perfectly possible that at some point in the future we might well be using hydrogen for heat, but actually there is a step ahead of that we can take now and we can roll out these hybrid heat pumps," says Stark.
Hybrid heat pumps work by using electricity to extract heat from ambient air during milder months to heat a home, automatically switching to the use of a companion traditional gas boiler if it becomes more efficient to do so.
Stark argues that given these heat pumps can cut natural gas use upwards of 80 per cent for the average household, they can be rolled out now in UK homes. Then, when the time comes in the 2030s to retire natural gas, hydrogen can move in as the back-up fuel for home heating. This is a better option than trying to produce vast amounts of hydrogen to pump wholesale into the existing natural gas grid without any attempt to dramatically curb gas demand first, Stark says.
"If we see a mass rollout [of hybrid heat pumps] we can expect the cost of these things to fall, we can expect our use of gas to fall, and actually we can look to a future where we can reduce the quantity of gas that's being consumed to such a level that we can then conceive of then converting that to hydrogen in the future," Stark explains.
There's also potential for hydrogen to be used for long-distance road freight and heavy industry alongside its heating role, the CCC points out, both hard-to-abate areas with few attractive low-carbon alternatives to hand.
But the report makes clear hydrogen is not a silver bullet for decarbonisation. Producing it using renewables will be expensive and likely impractical at large scale, so the CCC is proposing its production would rely primarily on natural gas combined with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This means its deployment would have to be constrained and as such the role of energy efficiency becomes even more important in curbing demand.
This approach is a clear shift in thinking for the CCC, Stark highlights. "I think in the past we [the CCC] could rightfully be accused of being a bit binary in our outlook - we been proposing that either we are fully electrified or we are fully hydrogen," he acknowledges. "This is a different way through it, and a better way through it, and it's caused us to change our advice to government."
The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has promised more support for this agenda will be forthcoming as it looks to encourage further investment in green heat technologies. Last month it officially launched its £320m of funding pot low-carbon heating, and insists it is supporting industry efforts to grow the hydrogen economy via this and other means. Early stage plans are also being pursued to establish Leeds as a test bed for hydrogen technologies.
"As we strive to meet our ambitious climate change targets and deliver value for money, the government will continue to work with industry and academia to understand the options that hydrogen offers to our future energy system," a spokesman for the Department said.
"Alongside funding for hydrogen we also support innovation in carbon capture, a key enabler for low carbon hydrogen. Our first ever global summit in Edinburgh next week will bring together key players in the carbon capture field."
But these welcome initiatives do not amount to a full strategy, argues Stark, where businesses and the public are clear on the direction of travel for the UK energy system in the coming decades. This needs to change fast, according to the CCC, if the UK is to be able to accelerate hydrogen development in order to meet its climate targets.
"It's the kind of plan that industry should see and the consumer should be able to see and understand how the rollout will happen," says Stark. "And I don't think we have that at the moment. We have really good and well-intended efforts to look at decarbonised heat and hydrogen for that matter, but I don't think that amounts yet to a fully fledged strategy and that's what we need over the next three years."
There are still options to decarbonise heat, transport and industry without the use of hydrogen - full electrification would be one way, although this is likely to be tricky to deliver and could result in higher costs. Likewise a huge rollout of CCS could help deliver emissions reductions from heavy industry. But compared to such dautning infrastructure programmes, the CCC's hydrogen vision could prove to be the most "credible" way forward. The challenge for the government is turning the hydrogen economy into a reality.
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