Is hydrogen the answer to the energy trilemma?

Rinnai’s Chris Goggin looks at the potential impact of hydrogen on the UK’s energy sources.

The UK is currently caught in what is known as The Energy Trilemma – and the three challenges are:

  • Urgent need for energy decarbonisation
  • Security of supply
  • Energy prices to industry and the consumer

A combination of macro-environmental issues is calling for a sustainable energy transition that delivers a reduction of energy consumption and diversification of energy sources.

The pipe dream – towards infrastructural hydrogen

The nature of hydrogen has led it to be identified as a potential key factor in addressing this energy transition. Hydrogen offers storage capabilities that cannot be achieved by electricity, as it can be stored for long periods of time providing potential to support the issue of sustainability and security.

Hydrogen can also be obtained from different sources, both renewable and fossil based, by achievable and flexible processes like electrolysis. This assists with the debate and political pressure of energy security. It can be relativity inexpensive, if the existing infrastructure allows.

On the last point it is worth noting that the UK’s gas distribution infrastructure was predominantly steel and iron pipe with this material suspect to embrittlement if a high-pressure gas like hydrogen is distributed.

However, the UK has had an iron mains replacement program in progress for some time now, with the aim of replacing all low-pressure iron distribution pipe with polyethylene. The target completion date is mid-2030s and polyphenylene pipelines should not be affected by hydrogen.

Technological level barriers?

Energy consumption from heat in buildings in the UK accounts for around 40% of total energy consumption and 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. Modelling across the UK energy grid has focussed heavily on electrification, using a range of technologies, including air or ground source heat pumps, along with district heating, solar heating, and biomass.

As demand in the UK is seasonal and varied these technology options have no alternative functions in periods of low demand and yet carry high levels of capital expenditure. Studies also cite the requirement of technological and behavioural change that enables technology adoption and also describe this as having the potential to be significantly more disruptive to the consumer than converting existing natural gas infrastructure to hydrogen.

It is for these reasons that hydrogen, in conjunction with alternative technologies like fuel cells, are gaining increased traction propelled by data and evidence as an opposing solution to today’s low carbon technologies.

Papers released by the Sustainable Gas institute and the Hydrogen and Fuel cell Supergen Research Hub (H2FC) have focussed on greener gas grids and the potential role of fuels cells and hydrogen .

The paper created by H2FC utilises the (UKTM) UK times model methodology deployed regularly by the UK government to assess different scenarios. A particular scenario of interest is centred around the conversion of the current gas network to carry hydrogen and homeowners choosing between low-carbon heating and transport technologies, primarily based on cost.

The work conducted by the Sustainable Gas Institute considers a wide range of grid conversion factors like consumer and retail costs under different scenarios. The results of these costing projections demonstrate that there is a potential consumer saving of 73% when comparing hydrogen conversion costs against the capital costs of, for example, air source heat pumps.

Therefore, since the cost of converting a dwelling to hydrogen may be like the cost of replacing a gas boiler, this may prove a more popular option for consumers. Price is an extremely important part of the equation when considering societal requirements.

A large part to play

Hydrogen may well have a large part to play in decarbonising the UK energy grid, whilst also providing a sustainable solution to the geopolitical and societal elements of the Energy Trilemma.

The distribution of hydrogen creates a resolution to the questions and the very necessary decarbonisation of the UK energy grid. Hydrogen can be combusted through existing ‘in situ’ appliances, complete with smart controls and cost-effective hardware & software upgrades as demonstrated by proprietary technology in hot water heating units.

The wholesale adoption of hydrogen also offers a solution to the disruptive behavioural changes required at a consumer level and the dominant societal and political issue of consistently affordable energy supplies.

One question remains: what can become of ‘traditional’ renewables such as heat pumps and solar systems in a consumer installation?

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