INDUSTRY COMMENT: Blue vs green hydrogen

INDUSTRY COMMENT: Blue vs green hydrogen

Mark Wilkins, Technology and Training Director at Vaillant, comments on the recent concerns voiced by environmentalists about hydrogen.

As a manufacturer of both boilers and heat pumps we know there is no silver bullet to decarbonising heat in the UK but ultimately, we need clarity from the Government so heating manufacturers, gas and network providers have a clear strategy to determine the journey to decarbonising heat.

The last 14 months have been a huge challenge, especially for the Government; the pandemic has pushed back numerous strategies such as the Future Homes Standard, the Heat and Build Strategy and the UK Hydrogen Strategy. As soon as these strategies are released, Vaillant and the industry can move forward in developing innovative new technologies and training programmes to support green jobs, ensuring we are prepared to reach the UK’s net-zero target and support a green economic recovery.

Whilst we are supportive of the long-term goal of green hydrogen, blue hydrogen has an important role to play as a stepping stone in the reduction of carbon emissions in the immediate future. It is true that blue hydrogen is produced from natural gas but the CO2 produced is not released into the atmosphere. Up to 90% of the CO2 can be stored in tanks or underground caverns, preventing emissions. Creating blue hydrogen can achieve lifecycle carbon emission savings of up to 85% when compared to natural gas boilers being used today (source: The CCC).

Whilst Vaillant is a strong advocate of both heat pumps and hydrogen boilers, arguably hydrogen is easier to store than electricity. In the peak heating season, energy demand is approximately four times the average demand for the rest of the year. Historically, this has been met via the storage of gas for use at these peak times, but a move to pure electrification of heat will pose significant challenges for the electricity grid to cope with seasonal demand. With little means of storage and the variability of wind and solar energy generation, challenges are presented for green electricity generation. Hydrogen, as a ‘replacement gas’, can be stored, overcoming the challenge of variability in electricity demand and generation throughout the year. Of course, other options such as hybrid heat pumps (where the heat pump is installed together with the incumbent boiler) can provide an on-site flexible solution to cope with the seasonality of demand and provide a cost-effective lower carbon solution for those more hard to treat homes.

Heat pumps are a good alternative when homes are off the gas grid or for many retrofit properties that have a suitable level of insulation. However, some existing UK homes need insulation upgrades before the installation of a heat pump is an effective measure. With the cost of a heat pump installation significantly more expensive than a boiler installation and with a lack of incentives currently available, many homeowners will opt for a less costly approach. Currently, many homeowners are unaware of the changes required to their heating systems, including how a heat pump works, how the system operates at lower temperatures, and the behaviours in the operation of the system compared to a traditional boiler.

We urge the Government to act quickly and provide the much needed clarity so that we can move forward in the decarbonisation journey. Whilst we are waiting for strategies to be announced, Vaillant is working with Government and trade associations to ensure the decarbonisation of heating is carried out in the most effective way, ensuring that whatever is suggested is easy to implement for the installer and the homeowner.

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