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Is Hydrogen The Long Term Answer To Decarbonising Commercial Buildings?

The UK Government’s announced drive towards Net-Zero is to be lauded, but in truth, there is no utopian response that completely satisfies all criteria. So, the search continues for the most cost-effective and robust path of transformation for the commercial sector. What is clear is that technologies that can leverage existing infrastructure and supply chains are highly advantageous when it comes to commercial buildings contributing to long-term decarbonisation.

This was why in late 2018 the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) proposed that hydrogen, when combined with greater energy efficiency, cheap low-carbon power generation and new ‘hybrid’ heat pump systems would be a credible option to help decarbonise the UK energy system.

Previous assessment had always questioned the practicality and expensive of roll out at scale, despite recognising the potential of hydrogen as a zero-carbon energy source. The CCC’s new findings, however, indicated that hydrogen could replace natural gas in parts of the energy system, where electrification is not feasible or is prohibitively expensive, for example in providing heat on colder winter days, industrial heat processes and back-up power generation.

This has spurred on HyDeploy, the largest gas innovation project ever funded by Ofgem. The project, which is set to be completed by 2023 is a launch pad for the hydrogen blending market and the UK’s first to demonstrate hydrogen injection into a live gas network, with the aim to achieve up to 20% volume blend for domestic gas use. The overarching aim of the project is to provide the safety case for hydrogen blending and facilitate the clearance of regulatory barriers necessary to kick start the hydrogen blending market.

The project is a critically important stepping stone in establishing Hydrogen as a credible option for the UK’s energy transition. The reality is that a shift to hydrogen requires a number of obstacles to be overcome and much of that is to do with education. Research commissioned by the CCC into the general awareness of hydrogen as a heating technology showed a broad lack of familiarity with the new technology and how it works with the current heating expectations – efficiency, speed of deployment and physical form factors. There were also inherent negative perceptions relating to the burden of installation costs of the new technology. The challenge to the heating industry as a whole is to better educate customers in order to accept alternative technologies moving forward and to clearly establish the benefits of switching heating technologies.

What is clear, is that hydrogen is not going to be the holy grail of zero carbon heating for commercial projects. The simple truth is that it would be impractical to switch the gas grid to 100% hydrogen for zero carbon heat, despite the existence of the extensive natural gas grid in the UK.

Producing bulk hydrogen from renewable electricity is also still expensive, and any produced by ‘surplus’ renewable electricity is not expected to meet the scale of demand. The production of low carbon hydrogen at scale will rely on using imported natural gas and deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to offer a cost-effective route to produce lower volumes of hydrogen. Even when using CCS, it is important to realise hydrogen from fossil fuels will not be zero-carbon.

But, in terms of cost-effectively reducing emissions from energy use to a very low level by 2050, producing hydrogen via a low carbon route and storing it at scale makes it a potentially valuable complement to electrification.

Looking forward, the priority for the 2020s is to educate the commercial market by demonstrating hydrogen’s value. This begins by commencing hydrogen production at scale as part of a CCS cluster. It is proposed that blending at small proportions into the natural gas supply and deployment within industry would not initially require major infrastructure changes. Without doubt, there will be new policies put in place by the government to drive this adoption as greater clarity is gained regarding hydrogen’s long-term role in the energy system.

In the mid-term to long-term, hydrogen is expected to play a valuable role in meeting the needs for heating the UK’s commercial buildings. This will be realised primarily by deployment in combination with heat pumps as part of ‘hybrid heat pump’ systems.

Heat pumps, powered by increasingly low carbon electricity, offer the potential to provide heat efficiently for most of the time, with hydrogen boilers contributing during periods of peak electricity demand, which have cost implications for a business, and when temperature plunge in winter months. The expectation is for the combined deployment of hydrogen and heat pumps to effectively displace fossil fuel only use in buildings in the long term to achieve very low emission energy systems that will make an important contribution to decarbonisation.

As a result, facility and energy managers looking to establish a road map to net zero carbon are advised to look at how they can integrate heat pumps with their existing gas infrastructure into a hybrid approach that will not only be more efficient, lower cost and lower carbon, but ultimately be hydrogen ready.

With close to 50 years of experience in advising the commercial sector on hot water, heating and low carbon renewable power systems, Adveco is perfectly placed to consult on short, mid and long term options for your commercial projects, whether new build or refurbishment.