energy politics technology

The moral hazard of hydrogen

I’ve been writing about hydrogen over the last few weeks, investigating its various benefits in decarbonising the energy system, transport, industry and much else besides. But there also drawbacks and potential risks.

The biggest of them is kind of obvious when you realise that gas companies are among the most vocal advocates of hydrogen. The author of The Hydrogen Revolution , which I reviewed recently, is the CEO of a gas company. For him, hydrogen is a way to use his firm’s infrastructure as part of the energy transition, and I think he’s sincere in his concern about climate change. But there’s no question that some fossil fuel companies are using hydrogen as a trojan horse. ‘Hydrogen ready’ boilers will be wheeled into the city with high hopes for clean energy, only to find that they’re still burning fossil fuels and there’s no reduction in emissions.

There are two ways that this can happen. One is that government will give the green light to ‘blue hydrogen’. As described in this earlier post, this is when hydrogen is made from fossil gas, and the emissions are captured and stored (CCS). A nice idea in theory, but CCS is yet to be proved economical or practical as a technology at any kind of useful scale. Green hydrogen is what we should be aiming for – made from renewable energy – but clean technologies are not adopted in a neutral marketplace. They are fought over in a marketplace where the big fossil fuel companies have a huge amount of power. In the UK, these corporations have lobbied successfully for the inclusion of blue hydrogen in the national hydrogen strategy.

This gives a prominent role to Britain’s gas firms and North Sea reserves, safeguarding investments in gas infrastructure and protecting their bottom line from the ‘carbon bubble‘ of stranded gas assets.

Chris Jackson, the chair of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, resigned in protest at the role of blue hydrogen when the national strategy was announced. His open letter to explain his decision tells you all you need to know: “I believe passionately that I would be betraying future generations by remaining silent on that fact that blue hydrogen is at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use that guarantees we will fail to meet our decarbonisation goals.”

The industry knows full well that blue hydrogen might not work, but that’s not their problem. If it fails, people will have to keep using fossil gas. They win if it works and they win if it fails, which creates little incentive to do it properly.

The second way that hydrogen can serve as a trojan horse for fossil fuels is by delaying the transition to other technologies. We know that Britain has to shift away from gas heating, and yet new homes continue to be built with gas boilers. It makes sense to stop installing gas boilers now. New homes should be built to such a high standard that they need almost no heating at all, and the little they need should be electric.

And yet, just yesterday, Boris Johnson confirmed that gas boilers will only be off the market from 2035 (Boilers in new homes may be phased out earlier, TBC). Why so late in the day? Because people can install ‘hydrogen ready’ boilers in anticipation of a potential low-carbon gas grid. That sounds fine, except that a new home could have a heat pump and be zero carbon from day one, not in ten years’ time. Leaving the door open for a theoretical hydrogen grid means years of unnecessary gas emissions across millions of homes.

I think there could be a limited role for hydrogen in heating – but not if it comes at the expense of more obvious and more genuinely low carbon technologies. That only serves the gas companies. And unfortunately, the UK is serving up a case study in the moral hazard of hydrogen.

3 comments

  1. Hi Jeremy, Assuming the government honour their promises on the revisions to Part L of the building regulations, the ‘Future Homes Standard’ then in theory new homes should stop being built with gas boilers from next year. I appreciate that is not a safe assumption given recent track record but I do have some hope. Technically it will still be possible to meet building regs with Gas boilers up until 2026 with the new regualtions but it is actuially more expenisve for the developer in most cases. The 2035 ban is for any new bolier, so homes currently using gas wont be able to directly replace gas boilers after this date. As you say they may be able to install hydrogen boilers at that point but we have a long way to go until then so it will be interesting to see how it pans out.

    1. Thanks for the clarification, and I’ve added a line in the post to reflect that. It’s bizarre to be still waiting for a conclusive decision on boilers, given the industry was gearing up for zero carbon homes scheme from 2016.

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