Using hydrogen to heat draughty, poorly-insulated homes makes so little economic sense it is tantamount to hard currency going up in flames, according one of the UK’s biggest independent utilities.
“Burning hydrogen in your inefficient home is going to be akin to burning £10 notes,” said Clementine Cowton, director of external affairs at Octopus Energy, at the recent Financial Times Hydrogen Summit in London.
Coining a phrase from UK prime minister Boris Johnson, she added: “You are going to be spaffing money up the wall on your astonishingly expensive hydrogen [heating system].”
Boilers running on green hydrogen would require six times more renewable energy than a heat pump directly powered by electricity.
“Hydrogen heating will double the cost of the annual fuel bill compared to a heat pump,” added Richard Lowes, senior associate at the Regulatory Assistance Project, an energy-focused independent multinational non-governmental organisation.
“Gas is dead; hydrogen is dead for heating,” he said, adding that the cost of hydrogen is “never going to wash with consumers, with voters” and officials know it.
“The government is scared to say anything to the industry,” he warned. “They’re trying to be polite. If you can heat your house with a heat pump, and it costs the same as running gas boiler now, the [benefits] are quite obvious.”
Advocates for hydrogen heating often repeat debunked theories that heat pumps are too expensive and that they do not work in uninsulated homes – omitting to mention that performance declines for any heat technology installed in a draughty building.
“I live in a 100 year-old house without insulation, not sure I’d get the co-efficiency [as in a newbuild property],” Phil Caldwell, CEO of fuel-cell maker Ceres Power, said at the summit. “You’d have to clad or insulate my home.”
Cowton argued that due to the high cost of green hydrogen compared to the relatively low running costs of heat pumps, there is even less of a case for hydrogen heating in a draughty home. And she pointed out that Octopus has already carried out some heat pump installations on newbuild properties for the same cost to householders as replacing a natural gas boiler. Installed alongside solar panels and a battery, some of the utilities’ heat pump installations have achieve zero energy bills for consumers, she added.
UK gas networks have been at the forefront of lobbying to replace natural gas in their infrastructure with hydrogen, despite study after study showing that hydrogen is unlikely to gain a foothold in space heating, due to the astronomical costs of upgrading the gas network and green hydrogen — which would always be a more expensive option that using renewable electricity directly.
Nevertheless some speakers at the summit called for open minds, warning against taking a one-size-fits-all approach.
“I don’t think it’s being diplomatic or politically correct to say we have to have these different pathways,” said Hari Vamadevan, senior vice-president at risk management consultancy DNV, noting that all the engineering problems presented in hydrogen heating can be solved. “We will electrify [but] there is no net zero without an alternative for the hard-to-abate sectors. You need to everything as much as you can, and hydrogen for heating gives you the option of scale and pace. Time is an enemy for net zero it isn’t just [about] cost and disruption.”
But Cowton responded that providing the option of hydrogen boilers or heat pumps would require the building of “two different systems and doubling the cost, rather than picking one and reducing the cost”.
And Lowes warned that building hydrogen networks and power grid upgrades for heat pumps would add so much cost that it risked derailing public support for the energy transition altogether.
“I’m really concerned that this [two-pronged approach] will slow us down,” he added. “Just talking about it, debating it is too much of a distraction.”