Focus on deploying heat pumps not hydrogen for homes this decade, report says

28/01/2022 12:41
July 2019 - Major testing centre launched to determine if hydrogen could power millions of homes.jpg

Deploying heat pumps and boosting energy efficiency should be the priority for home heating in the next decade, rather than hydrogen, a report has suggested.

Ministers have set out plans to roll out 600,000 heat pumps, a low carbon alternative to gas boilers, per year by 2028, and develop hydrogen supplies, which are also being touted as an option for cutting climate emissions from home heating systems currently run on natural gas.

But a report from Imperial College London’s Energy Futures Lab said it was likely that using hydrogen as an energy source in the gas grid would only be feasible from the early to mid-2030s, at the very earliest.

With tough climate goals to cut emissions within the decade, the research calls for a focus on making UK homes more efficient, electrifying domestic heating through heat pumps, and deploying heat networks in the next 10 years.

The report was commissioned by the MCS Charitable Foundation, which aims to drive adoption of renewable energy and low carbon technology. The MCS Charitable Foundation is notably opposed to hydrogen conversion of the gas grid and its use in home heating, and so the report findings are not a surprise.

UK homes are very draughty and leak heat, and whatever technology is used to cut carbon from housing, improving energy efficiency is essential, the report said.

Heat pumps, which use electricity to generate heat from air, ground or water, have high upfront installation costs.

Air source heat pumps average around £10,000 to install, with the technology also potentially needing changes such as bigger radiators, and they heat homes differently to a gas boiler. The report ‘Decarbonising heat in buildings: putting customers first’ report, published by the EUA, identified that 7-10m homes were suitable for heat pumps without a great deal of intervention, with another 3-4m homes potentially suitable for heat pumps, subject to space constraints and/or upgrades to the building and heating system. It also identified that 8-12m homes have limiting factors to installing a heat pump that are highly unlikely to be overcome.

Hydrogen produces no carbon emissions when used in boilers which are similar to gas units, and can be generated using renewable electricity or from methane gas. Although the latter produces carbon emissions in the process, these can be sequestered with carbon capture and storage, as being developed through UK Government industrial cluster investment.

The Imperial report highlights the costs of switching to hydrogen for heating in changing infrastructure, meters and boilers in homes, and finds that over the long term, shifting to heat pumps is the lowest cost option for households. Evidence in wider reports suggest the contrary, and the ENA Pathways to Net Zero report identified a least cost approach with a balanced scenario from using electricity, hydrogen and biomethane.

Although the Imperial report suggests that hydrogen would be best placed for use close to industrial clusters where it is being used for industrial processes or in hybrid heat pump systems that also include a boiler element, recent research from Element Energy in the report ‘The future role of gas in transport’ refers to spatial analysis around industrial clusters and identifies 42% of domestic heat is in these areas. In addition to that, National Grid’s activity to connect-up all of the industrial clusters with hydrogen transmission infrastructure opens up a gateway for total GB conversion, as well as from wider expansion of hydrogen supplies in the distribution networks.

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