Hydrogen in buildings: the children’s poster of technological crastination


Technology crastination refers to cases where the promise of future technology diminishes interest in deploying existing, reliable and profitable technologies. Technological crastination is a suitable characterization of the gas industry’s claims regarding the suitability of hydrogen as a solution to decarbonize buildings, even though heating homes with hydrogen is one of the less efficient and less efficient options. more expensive available.

Credit: iStock / audiounderbung

Green hydrogen has become the darling of the gas industry and of those considering ways to achieve aggressive climate goals. It is a promising solution for cleaning up the most difficult sectors of the economy – aviation, maritime transport and the steel industry – where electrification faces technical obstacles. However, it is an inefficient and expensive solution outside of those narrow applications where it is particularly suited to the task.

For example, green hydrogen is a terribly inefficient and risky solution to decarbonizing buildings compared to the proven and readily available high efficiency electric heat pumps. Despite this reality, and to protect and perpetuate their business model, some in the gas industry are increasingly disseminating the merits of the generalization of hydrogen in buildings and laying the foundations for its deployment. It could derail investments in building efficiency and electrification, undermine climate progress and lock customers into expensive and illusory high-hydrogen pathways. Burning hydrogen in homes could also to get worse indoor air pollution.

Policymakers should reduce industry noise and vigorously pursue widespread electrification as a lower cost, lower risk solution to decarbonising buildings.

The use of hydrogen to heat buildings receives a meager “F” rating on Liebreich’s now famous “hydrogen ladder”.

Source: Liebreich: “The oil sector is pushing for inefficient hydrogen cars because it wants to delay electrification”, Recharge News, 2021

The use of hydrogen in buildings creates harmful air pollution

The combustion of hydrogen generates harmful air pollutants, and the extent to which these could be mitigated remains uncertain. This reality is recognized by the California gas utilities; they recognize that due to the chemical characteristics of hydrogen, mixtures of hydrogen and methane can even give upper emissions of nitrogen oxides harmful to health than methane alone. In contrast, heat pumps produce no indoor air pollution by eliminating combustion and provide a solid path to zero-emission buildings as the electricity supply moves away from the production of fossil fuels.

An inefficient and risky solution compared to direct and efficient electrification

Hydrogen can hypothetically substitute for methane gas in heating buildings. However, a series of studies (here and here) estimate that heating a home with green hydrogen would require 5 to 6 times more renewable electricity than to heat the same house with a very efficient heat pump. More than 20% of electricity is lost in the production of hydrogen and readily available high efficiency heat pumps can be 4.5 times more efficient compared to still pre-commercial hydrogen boilers (figure below). Choosing hydrogen instead of a high efficiency heat pump is like choosing to take your car to work, spend 30 minutes in traffic jams and pay $ 35 to park on top of it, instead of driving. bike 10 minutes from home.

Relative efficiency of heating electricity in heat pumps compared to electrolytic hydrogen in boilers according to a study by the UK Climate Change Committee

Source: Hydrogen in a low carbon economy, UK CCC, 2018

This large efficiency differential has important implications for both the cost and the risk profile of high hydrogen pathways. Achieving US climate goals will require a substantial increase in wind and solar deployment. A useless quintuple multiplier on this renewable construction would massively increase the difficulty of cleaning up our economy. It also increases the potential of hydrogen supply risks, which should be duly taken into account in assessing the relevance of a large hydrogen program. A diverse group of European stakeholders urged their governments to avoid pursuing hydrogen as a widespread solution in buildings because of these critical limitations. Policymakers around the world should heed this recommendation.

The slogan “no disturbance” is a myth: hydrogen requires modified or entirely new pipelines and devices

Some in the gas industry argue that using hydrogen to heat buildings is a ‘no-break’ solution to electrification, due to the possibility of using the existing gas network to transport the gas. hydrogen. But this claim ignores some critical challenges.

Hydrogen is a fundamentally different gas compared to methane gas:

  • When mixed in high proportions with methane, its chemical properties weaken steel pipelines and reduce their integrity;
  • It is a much smaller molecule than methane and is therefore more prone to leakage, with important implications for the pipe materials required.

Hydrogen could be mixed with methane in small proportions with minimal investments in the existing gas system – perhaps up to 7% by energy, although this is the subject of ongoing investigations. However, any amount of hydrogen exceeding the 7 percent threshold is likely to require either major network conversion measures or the construction of a whole new network of dedicated hydrogen pipelines.

Our devices are also not designed to operate with a high mixture of hydrogen; gas boilers, ovens and stoves should be replaced by alternatives compatible with hydrogen, which are currently not available to consumers.

The high costs and effort associated with large-scale hydrogen conversion therefore strongly challenges the glossy “no disruption” marketing claim.

Risks of costly “oversizing” of the energy system

Some claim that the widespread use of hydrogen in buildings would lead to huge savings on electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure compared to the electrification of buildings. However, this premise is questionable as it selectively overlooks the larger picture. While it may save money on electricity distribution infrastructure, a high hydrogen consumption path would require additional large infrastructure elsewhere on the system due to its much lower efficiency compared to direct electrification and the need for a network compatible with hydrogen.

A study by the European Climate Foundation found that savings on power grid infrastructure in a high hydrogen case would be far less than the increased costs of renewables, electrolysers and storage facilities to produce and store. of green hydrogen, as well as in maintenance and renovation. of the gas network to transport hydrogen. This “oversizing” of energy infrastructure greatly increases the costs of the energy system and the energy bill of households compared to cases of high electrification.

Source: Towards fossil-free energy in 2050, European Climate Foundation, 2019.

The high hydrogen case reflects increased hydrogen use and moderate electrification in buildings and transportation. The study estimates a 36% net increase in infrastructure costs with high hydrogen content. The 22% reduction in investment in electricity networks is largely offset by the 248% increase in expenditure on electrolysers, storage facilities and renovation of gas networks. The study also estimates a 16% increase in investment in renewable energy projects in the case of high hydrogen content.

Misleading claims aim to delay electrification and could produce costly lockdown effects

Marketing claims on the merits of the future, the widespread use of hydrogen in buildings could tarnish support for electrification among decision-makers and reduce associated investments. It seems likely that these dubious claims are often made with the intention of delaying crucial investments in the transition of fossil fuel infrastructure. This technological crastination risks undermining climate progress, as numerous studies (here and here) have concluded that rapid building electrification and efficient renovations during this decade are essential to achieve both the new Paris 2030 goal. and the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions 2050. In addition, continually invest in the existing gas system with a view to future reuse to hydrogen (an attractive proposition for utilities gas) risks locking customers down an expensive path to deep decarbonization. It could also lead to the shutdown of gas or hydrogen networks, following a final switch to electrification, the costs of which would be borne by customers.

Recommendations for decision-makers: ignore noise and prioritize electrification and building efficiency

Policy makers should prioritize electrification and building efficiency as a demonstrably more cost-effective generalized solution for buildings. More precisely:

  • Policymakers should reduce noise and make a decisive move towards the widespread deployment of high-efficiency heat pumps in buildings, energy efficiency improvements and the development of smart demand management policies. Hydrogen can play a supporting role in niche contexts, and such a proposal could be explored on the basis of independent evaluations.
  • Policymakers should exercise caution in striving to continue spending money on maintaining and expanding the gas network, based on the future reuse of hydrogen, and instead , deploy a planning process for its gradual decommissioning in a way that protects customers and workers. Reallocating portions of the gas network is a compelling proposition to serve difficult sectors that may require priority access to hydrogen – such as steel and shipping – and this targeted opportunity should be further explored.

The ‘code red’ displayed by the latest UN climate report confirms that we cannot afford to give credit to delaying tactics and derailing proven climate actions that are needed today. hui. Green hydrogen has the potential to play a central role in reducing emissions in sectors that are difficult to electrify. But buildings are not the place for it.

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