The role of hydrogen in the clean transition has long been assumed to be parallel to electric vehicles. But what if the starring part for hydrogen isn’t in transport at all, but in decarbonizing heating and industry? The U.K. looks like it is about to find out.
This week, the British press reported that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is set to publish a long-awaited strategy outlining a step-by-step transformation of the country’s natural gas grid into a hydrogen grid.
Most households in the U.K. heat their homes via natural gas boilers. But until the 1960s, the country actually depended on what is called “town gas,” a mixture of mostly hydrogen with small amounts of carbon monoxide and methane, so the move would in effect be a return to hydrogen heating, requiring few modifications to the existing pipe network.
Already in the industry-heavy city of Leeds, Northern Gas Networks is trialling hydrogen heating, with the aim of transforming the whole city to the scheme by the late 2020s—an effort that would cost some £2 billion (C$3 billion). Another U.K. gas distribution company, Cadent, proposed in August to spend £600 million (C$960 million) switching to hydrogen for industrial consumers of natural gas in the Manchester and Liverpool region. Then, following safety tests, the company intends to slowly introduce hydrogen into the natural gas mix flowing into people’s homes.
The cost of converting the whole of the U.K. to hydrogen would clock in at £50 billion (C$80 billion), but the cost to the system as a whole would be £150 billion (C$240 billion) to £200 billion (C$320 billion) cheaper than switching gas boilers for electric heating fuelled by renewables and nuclear, according to a KPMG assessment. It would be easier on households as well, as few appliances would need to be replaced, thus also making the whole proposal more politically palatable than electrification.
There is a carbon challenge however. The U.K. schemes propose to produce the hydrogen using steam-methane reforming, a process that still produces a small amount of CO2, which would then be captured and pumped into depleted gas fields in the North Sea—in effect a form of carbon capture and storage (CCS).
CCS is not without its critics, not least due to the potential for leakage. An alternative to steam-methane reforming is electrolysis, or the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen, powered by clean electricity.
Like the U.K. and almost all nations, B.C. has committed to decarbonizing its heating and industry. The presumption is that the bulk of this will require a significant increase in electricity generation to replace natural gas-fired processes, but build-out of clean electricity generation at such a scale remains controversial.
Use of hydrogen sourced from natural gas could reduce the amount of additional electricity generation needed substantially. If the lower-carbon option of hydrolysis is preferred however, this would once again require a substantial increase in clean electricity generation.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.