Guest Blog: Decarbonising heat by replacing natural gas with hydrogen

27 Jul 2016

By mid-century, could our heating boilers burn hydrogen, rather than natural gas? Jamie Speirs, Sustainable Gas Institute, makes the case for taking the idea seriously.

The H21 Leeds City Gate report, released last month, laid out detailed plans for a demonstration project to convert the gas distribution network in Leeds to hydrogen. The plan includes a staged approach to conversion of the gas network, to be completed by 2029; and a ‘vision’ chapter that sets out a plan to incrementally convert much of the remaining UK gas distribution network by 2052 creating, in the words of the report, ‘the world’s first hydrogen economy’.

There are, as yet, no plans to put this demonstration programme into practice, but far from being presented as an outlandish left field option, the rhetoric from the report authors is very much that a UK hydrogen distribution network compares competitively against the alternatives, including decarbonised electricity and electric heating options. In my view, this might represent the early salvos of the gas industry’s retaliation against the apparent 'electrification of heat' orthodoxy.

Recall that in the mid-2000s, decarbonisation of electricity and electrification of end-use appeared to be the least-cost solution to achieve the 80% decarbonisation target later written into the Climate Change Act. The implication was that gas networks and domestic boilers would be redundant, replaced by decarbonised electricity networks and heat pumps.

Over the next decade, the gas industry was relatively quiet on the long-term future of gas networks, confining the narrative to the transition role for natural gas, providing a bridge between the current system and the future electrified ‘utopia’.

However, since the establishment of the ‘all-electric orthodoxy’, confidence in electricity’s ability to decarbonise heat has slowly eroded. Reinforcement of the electricity distribution system has been cited as a significant challenge. The measured efficiency of heat pump technologies in the UK has also raised questions. Public acceptability of new heating technologies has led to slow uptake, despite policy interventions designed to encourage consumers to go green in their heating choices.

Recently, we have seen relatively high-profile public discussion of gas network decarbonisation options that may have previously been confined to niche technical reports. The most dramatic of these is the proposal to systematically repurpose the UK gas grid to distribute hydrogen.

Much has still to be argued and investigated but there is, in my view, a compelling case to be made for hydrogen. The future of heat decarbonisation is still up for grabs and the growing list of plausible options makes for a fascinating debate.

The Sustainable Gas Institute (SGI) was founded in partnership with BG Group. Dr Jamie Speirs is Research Fellow at the SGI. He is looking at the issues surrounding gas network repurposing including a range of future options for gas network infrastructure that might play a role in the decarbonisation of energy. Please see the SGI website for more detail.

For further discussion of heat decarbonisation, readers should also look at Guest Blog: Heat decarbonisation calls for proven technology.