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Hydrogen and hybrid heat pumps: the key pieces in the decarbonisation puzzle?

Hydrogen and hybrid heat pumps: the key pieces in the decarbonisation puzzle?

There is a strong potential future for hydrogen as a means to decarbonise heat, according to the reports published by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) on 22nd November. Hydrogen is painted as one of the three key solutions (alongside electrification and improved energy efficiency) which will help the UK both decarbonise heat and create more energy system flexibility. This supports Delta-ee’s view that the best route to decarbonisation of heating is likely to be a ‘balanced transition’ across a mix of technologies and fuels.

As our Gas Heating Service highlighted recently, the UK is already one the most active countries in Europe regarding the development of hydrogen for heating: see projects including H21, Hy4Heat, HyNet, HyDeploy and H100. This latest report by the CCC only strengthens the argument that hydrogen could play a key role in heat, as well as in other sectors like transport and industrial processes.

So what do hydrogen low carbon heating solutions actually look like? The CCC report highlights:

  • Hybrid heat pumps - hydrogen boilers combined with electrically driven heat pumps – as a key solution. Where the hydrogen boiler meets winter peaks, and the HP provides for the majority of heat demand, this solution sounds ideal for managing grid congestion associated with electrification (as we highlighted in our recent hybrids blog). But we still see big potential for growth in (purely) electric heat pumps, which should not be ignored.
  • Pure hydrogen solutions – an option in “selected” cases. The focus of the CCC is on hydrogen boilers, but is the report overlooking the potential for fuel cells? We believe these could have an important role in producing both heat and electricity from hydrogen at times of high demand – and the local electricity generation would support more heat pumps on the networks. This is an area we’re keeping a close eye on under our Gas Heating Service.

There are clearly plenty of technology options available to help us meet our decarbonisation targets. But there are challenges to overcome to make them a commercial reality. Two of the biggest issues are:

  1. Affordability - the upfront cost of the conversion and the running cost of the fuel in kWh to the end-user are both uncertain, but critical in the decision of whether to pursue a switch to hydrogen. While there are upfront estimates of the upfront cost of conversion, the running cost of hydrogen for end-users is far from definite. While it will depend on many variables (source, socialisation, policy framework etc.) we expect it is highly likely it will be more expensive than current natural gas. This carries its own challenges on customer acceptance and means we should look to use it as efficiently as possible.

  2. Winning end-user buy-in. The report recognises a lack of customer awareness of hydrogen, and that current hybrid HP uptake is still low. Yet it suggests that a third of UK homes should switch to hydrogen (largely used in hybrids). Heat pump and hybrid deployment levels in the UK, are far, far below this today, due to a number of factors: low customer and installer awareness, lack of trust in the technology, high upfront cost compared to a boiler, uncertainty about running cost savings, resistance to change... the list goes on. While we applaud the level of ambition in the CCC’s report, there are many customer barriers which will need to be effectively addressed if this level of hydrogen (and hybrid) deployment is to be achieved.  

We will be exploring some of these issues further in our upcoming in-depth report on hydrogen in Europe, for subscribers to the Delta-ee Gas Heating Service. Subscribers to our services can also read the Viewpoint on the CCC reports that we published last week under our Heat services. Please get in touch to learn more.

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