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Centralised hydrogen could be the answer
Published:  31 January, 2014

Mark Crowther, director and general manager of Kiwa in Cheltenham, discusses the benefits of hydrogen when aiming to achieve an 80% carbon reduction by the year 2050.

Some of us in the energy community have been looking to hydrogen as a means of supplying low-carbon energy to three business sectors: space heating, industrial processes and transport. Hydrogen has several advantages. It burns to water, is biologically inert, and can be relatively easily delivered to all of the premises currently connected to the natural gas grid. Interestingly, town gas (which we all consumed until north sea gas arrived) consisted of up to 60% hydrogen by volume.

Of course, everybody’s boiler, cooker or gas fire would need to be replaced to burn higher hydrogen-content gas, but this is relatively cheap compared to installing very high levels of insulation. Many car manufacturers are launching hydrogen vehicles, and filling stations could be connected to the existing gas grid.

Initially, the hydrogen would need to be produced, stored and used on a town or city scale, in a similar fashion to the original introduction of town gas. The primary energy sources would be similar to today, for example from wind or solar, waste or biomass, or natural gas. All of those processes have efficiency losses of typically 20 to 30% associated with the conversion process, but hydrogen can be readily stored, transported and used when and where it is required. These last two advantages can go a long way to redressing the conversion losses.

Furthermore, current world hydrogen production is about 60 million tonnes per year. It is safely piped and stored underground in the US and EU, including the UK. Hydrogen-using technology has essentially been proven for 100 years.

The Department of Energy & Climate Change, the Office for Low Emission Vehicles and some of the gas utilities seem to have woken up to the potential for hydrogen and are now carrying out essential safety and conceptual research and development. University College London is producing a White Paper, but we are reaching a point where some wider appreciation and discussion of the issues may be very useful.