Lifting the veil on hydrogen

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Daniel de Wijze, Energy Analyst at the Energy Institute

Last year, climate change captured the public’s imagination like never before. In September, over 6 million people took part in a global climate strike, likely the largest such event in world history. Meanwhile, businesses, governments, and the media all expressed growing concern about the impacts of greenhouse gases on the environment and the economy. In the UK, the Government passed legislation for an emissions target of net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. Achieving the net zero target is a huge challenge, and will likely transform the way we live, work and get from A to B.

With this in mind, the energy industry is searching for sustainable alternatives to coal, oil and natural gas – one intriguing option is hydrogen. A simple, colourless gas, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and fuels the fusion reactions that power young stars, including our Sun. Although it is an unknown entity for many, it has been used for many decades in industry, and also as a fuel for the Space Shuttle and other rockets. Hydrogen can be produced by using an electric current to split apart water (electrolysis) – as long as the electricity used is green, the production process is green too. Another low-carbon option is to use natural gas coupled with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

Until now, the low cost and convenience of producing, storing and transporting fossil fuels means that hydrogen has never been used widely outside of industry, and it is not yet cost-competitive in many areas. However, as the price of renewable energy, electrolysis equipment and carbon capture and storage technology is set to fall, hydrogen could become a much more attractive option.

What would using hydrogen mean for you or me? More people may soon be wondering, because it is flexible, potentially low-carbon, and could be used in many aspects of our lives – to cook meals, heat homes and even fuel cars. Work is ongoing to make sure that using hydrogen would be as safe and reliable as fuels like natural gas are today. There is particular interest in using hydrogen for domestic heating – decarbonising heat is a tricky task that will likely require changes to peoples’ homes, such as improving insulation or changing the boiler. Converting the natural gas distribution system to carry a hydrogen/natural gas blend – or even 100% – hydrogen has been suggested as a low-carbon heating method that would minimise disruption for the consumer. However, the cost-effectiveness is disputed, and it would require adapting or replacing millions of appliances, including cookers and ovens.

The Energy Institute (EI) aims to lift the veil on hydrogen and its potential applications with its brand-new, online user guide to hydrogen. It will be released at the Heat & Decentralised Energy Conference 2020, and explain how and why hydrogen could be used, what the user experience would be like, and what the associated costs and safety risks would be. The guide is accessible and engaging for household energy consumers, students and policy makers, as well as those with a more extensive background in the industry. Developed by the EI Knowledge Service, in collaboration with a cross-industry panel of experts, the breadth of contributors reflects a growing interest in hydrogen across the energy industry, from gas distributors and engineering firms to academics and automotive companies.

As the scale of the climate change challenge ahead looms large, we need to explore every option – hydrogen holds great promise, but there are also serious concerns to address. Look out for the EI’s guide to find out more.

Energy Essentials: a user guide to hydrogen will be available from 25th March on the EI Knowledge Service website

In the meantime, take a listen to episode 3 of the EI’s new podcast, Energy in Conversation, which dives in to the discussion around routes to decarbonising domestic heat.

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