13th June 2018

Electrification vs hydrogen for decarbonising heat: time for some clear thinking

2050 isn’t that far away. Ask any pensioner and they’ll tell you 32 years can disappear in a blink of an eye. In 1986 the charts were dominated by the likes of The Sun Always Shines on TV, Spirit in the Sky and Papa Don’t Preach. Old? Hardly ancient history.

And in infrastructure terms it’s nothing. The Thames Barrier alone took eight years to build. Yet we have just 32 to completely decarbonise heating in the UK or risk failing our climate change targets.

Let that sink in – complete decarbonisation. Not ‘significant’ or even ‘heavy’ – complete. But we haven’t even figured out how we’re going to do so, let alone get properly started.

Instead, we’ve jumped straight into fussing over details. Option X is impossible because of A, but option Y doesn’t work because of B. Etcetera etcetera. We’re wading through treacle, stuck in finer points without first establishing some guiding principles.

We need some clear thinking. To get that, we need to ask two initial questions.

One: why aren’t we getting serious on energy efficiency? The surest way to cut carbon is to cut final energy use, and we have some of the poorest building stock in Europe when it comes to energy efficiency. Why were zero carbon homes scrapped? Why was the recent ECO consultation so lacklustre and why was the Green Deal a washout?

Answer that, fix it and we can start making some instant progress.

Two: what approach can we take to heat decarbonisation that is a) complete and b) immediately effective?

Here is where we hit against the stormy electrification versus hydrogen debate. It’s also where we get bogged down with a lot of premature ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ (infamous 6x argument anyone?).

At Erda Energy, we obviously have a horse in the race but let’s be absolutely clear that only electrification can satisfy either a) or b).

Firstly, electrifying heat ties its carbon content into that of the power sector. We have a clear path for zero carbon power and are getting closer all the time. It’s no small ask, but there is a clear progression to zero carbon heat through renewable energy.

Secondly, we have electric heat technologies now and carbon content of grid electricity is falling now. Ground and air source heat pumps, for example, have been around for decades and are getting better all the time. We can decarbonise completely and we can hit the ground running.

Compare and contrast with hydrogen. It fails on both a) and b) unless you start making some big assumptions.

There are two main methods for producing hydrogen: steam methane reforming (SMR) and electrolysis.

SMR produces a lot of carbon emissions that must be captured and stored with CCS – an industry that has itself been trying and failing to get off the ground for some time now. Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Michael Liebreich recently wrote that, “anyone promoting SMR-based hydrogen as a climate solution deserves their own circle of hell.” That’s both a) and b) scuppered then.

Electrolysis could be better but is at least a generation away as a technology that can be deployed at the required scale. By then today’s teenagers might be looking back at Ed Sheeran with the same nostalgia that some attach to A-ha and vintage Madonna…

…so in the meantime, let’s get started on energy efficiency and electrification.

Kevin Stickney
Managing Director

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