On 27 June 2019, the energy and clean growth minister Chris Skidmore signed papers that committed the UK to reduce carbon emissions to effectively nothing by 2050. If we are to stand any chance of meeting this target, known as “net zero”, there is one enormous challenge that we will have to tackle: home heating. Warming our homes is responsible for between a quarter and a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than 10 times the amount of CO2 created by the aviation industry. Around 85% of homes now use gas-fired central heating, and a large proportion of gas cooking still takes place. Greening this system is a huge challenge by any measure. But if recent reports are to be believed, there could be a simple and efficient way to do it: change from using natural gas to hydrogen gas. Hydrogen is abundant in the natural world and according to its advocates could power the next generation of gas appliances cleanly and efficiently. “The attraction of hydrogen is that for a lot of consumers, they wouldn’t notice any difference. Customers would continue to use a boiler to heat their homes in a similar manner to natural gas,” says Robert Sansom of the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s energy policy panel. He is the lead author on a study conducted by the institute called Transitioning to Hydrogen. Together with colleagues, Sansom assessed the engineering risks and uncertainties associated with swapping our gas network to hydrogen. Their conclusion is that there is no reason why repurposing the gas network to hydrogen cannot be achieved. But not everyone is convinced by this sudden interest in hydrogen. Richard Lowes of the University of Exeter Energy Policy Group says that until recently the received wisdom had been that heating would have to be electrified in some way to meet our climate-crisis commitments. “That has basically come out of years and years of technical and economic modelling to look at how you get to fully decarbonised heating in the UK,” says Lowes. Hydrogen is not found on Earth in a pure state. Instead, it has to be extracted from other substances, and the best one to extract it from is methane – in other words natural gas. Hence, the gas companies could effectively keep their current operations running. But the extra steps involved in extracting the hydrogen would push the price up. Additionally, the extraction creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct, so large scale carbon capture technology would need to be developed to prevent it escaping into the atmosphere. Although this is a technology that the UK will have to develop anyway in order to reach net zero by 2050, it will add to the cost.
Guardian/Observer 21st March 2020 read more »