Hydrogen? It hasn’t even got to the drawing board yet
Sometimes the government seems to be living in a different world from the real life heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry. Its latest hobby horse is hydrogen for home and commercial premises, to replace natural gas as the source of heating. There is, of course, no demand for this from hard-pressed households and employers, struggling with current energy bills, but when did that ever discourage a government initiative? So let’s try and untangle some of the sensible from the not so sensible in the latest pronouncements on hydrogen.
The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) asked an engineering consultancy, Frazer-Nash, to take a look at how to use hydrogen to reduce carbon emissions produced by heating systems. They looked first of all at how appliances that were designed to use natural gas, would cope with running on hydrogen. The consultants were asked to figure out which components would need to be redesigned and what the technical challenges would be.
Then they looked at the costs, timescales, practical problems and performance possibilities for three different scenarios. The first was for new appliances that would be specifically developed to run on hydrogen. The next was adapting current natural gas appliances to run on hydrogen. (Some older members of the HVAC industry may remember the great conversion from town gas to natural gas in the 1970s). The third was for the development of dual fuel appliances, capable of switching between hydrogen and natural gas.
The consultants have been out talking to the HVAC industry, including heating installers, manufacturers, contractors and servicing companies. The upshot is a recommendation that the government puts in some short to medium term financing, to get hydrogen-based heating technologies off the ground.
It has to be said that they’ve got a fair old way to go. As yet, there aren’t even any hydrogen burners that could be used with domestic boilers. There’s a whiff of wishful thinking about the project, as the industry is being asked for its views on how it would implement a technology that is so far off being available – it hasn’t even made it to the drawing board yet, never mind from there to domestic and commercial appliances and systems.
The conclusion of the report was that any new hydrogen-based systems would need to offer similar performance to the current natural gas systems. This may seem a somewhat obvious statement – and it is. The whole concept faces a massive logistical problem – you either have a nationwide switchover with all current appliances needing to be adapted, or you have to bring hydrogen in gradually.
How will that be done? The introduction of dual fuel appliances seems to have been ruled out, so you’d need to have boilers capable of burning natural gas that contained the components to allow a switchover to hydrogen on a certain date.
Either way, logistics are going to define this debate and domestic consumers in particular are unwilling to pay a penny more than they have to for carbon reduction. So the government may have an uphill task selling them a completely new technology that offers no apparent benefits in terms of savings on energy bills.