This article is the full text of a letter to the editor of The Times newspaper. An abridged version of the letter was published in the newspaper on Thursday 24th Sept, 2020 and is included at the end of the article.
Re: ‘A hydrogen-fuelled future energises Johnson’
There is currently much hype around the idea that hydrogen is the ‘silver bullet’ for the UK’s green energy needs for home heating and long-haul transport. Indeed, even Prime Minister Johnson is said to be enamoured with this concept (‘A hydrogen-fuelled future energises Johnson’, The Times, Comment, Friday 18th Sept, 2020).
Unfortunately, much scientific evidence and techno-economic modelling shows that widespread adoption of hydrogen (instead of electricity) for heating and heavy vehicles would be detrimental to the UK’s economy, detrimental to its energy security, and would prevent it from achieving its decarbonisation commitments.
There are two main versions of the ‘hydrogen economy’: The first would be fuelled by ‘green hydrogen’ which is created by passing renewable electricity through pure (distilled) water. The second would be fuelled by ‘blue hydrogen’, made from methane (natural gas) by a process called steam methane reforming (SMR). SMR generates carbon dioxide (CO2) as a by-product and this must all be captured and stored permanently in underground caverns, for the process to be ‘sustainable’.
Proponents of hydrogen suggest that it should be used for: (i) heating homes; (ii) powering heavy goods vehicles; (iii) electricity storage.
Electricity storage via green hydrogen is so inefficient (about 70% of the energy is wasted) that no company trying to use this technology could possibly compete with the wide range of far more efficient, mature storage technologies: hydro-electricity; batteries of various kinds; liquid air storage; flywheels; etc. So electricity storage is not a reason for generating green hydrogen.
For heating homes, the main options are to use hydrogen-fuelled boilers or to use electricity to power heat pumps. The latter is a standard technology, used widely around the world.
It takes about six times more electricity to heat a house with green hydrogen than using a heat pump. That means six times the number of wind turbines or solar panels or nuclear power stations are needed to make the electricity; hence 6 times the operating cost. Similarly, it takes about 3.3 times more electricity to create the hydrogen for a hydrogen fuel cell lorry (or bus) than is used to power an electric version of the same vehicle . Consequently, it would be very expensive to heat a house with hydrogen or to fuel a lorry with hydrogen. Either the consumer/truck operator would have to pay the extra, or the government would have to subsidise the price of hydrogen – for ever. Either way, the economy would be permanently damaged by a decision to use hydrogen.
Blue hydrogen is also possible for these applications. However: (i) an energy system powered by blue hydrogen could never reach ‘net zero’ because the carbon capture and storage process is not perfect. It is somewhere between 55% and 90% effective, depending on how much money the generating company is willing to spend on it . That means 10% to 45% of the CO2 would escape into the atmosphere – and the UK’s CO2 emission reduction commitments could not be met. Further, (ii) because hydrogen has a much lower energy content than methane, every natural gas pipe in the country would have to be replaced by one of nearly twice the diameter. And finally, (iii) substantially more natural gas would need to be imported or fracked to supply the SMR process. For example, natural gas imports would have to increase by a quarter, just to power the UK’s HGVs via blue hydrogen . The switch to hydrogen lorries alone would mean that nearly 60% of the nation’s natural gas would have to be imported (mainly from Qatar and Russia), severely impacting energy security. Given the significantly increased natural gas consumption in a blue hydrogen economy, is not at all surprising that the fossil fuel industry is busy lobbying governments around the world for hydrogen .
There seems to be no way to reconcile the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for hydrogen, except to conclude that he and his advisors have been misled by the fossil fuel lobby.
References D Cebon ‘Long-Haul Lorries Powered by Hydrogen or Electricity?’ http://www.csrf.ac.uk/2020/02/blog-long-haul-lorries-powered-by-hydrogen-or-electricity/  Collodi et al, ‘Techno-economic Evaluation of Deploying CCS in SMR Based Merchant H2 Production with NG as Feedstock and Fuel’, Energy Procedia, Volume 114, July 2017, pp2690-2712. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.egypro.2017.03.1533  R Lowe, et al ‘Heating in Great Britain: An incumbent discourse coalition resists an electrifying future’, Environmental and Societal Transitions 37 (2020) 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2020.07.007