Heat pump campaigners fear hydrogen fairy-tale is obstructing ready-to-deploy solutions for heat decarbonisation.
Parliamentarians have found a new unicorn to chase in the bid to decarbonise the nation: hydrogen.
Receiving a whopping 392 mentions in Parliament in 2020, more than air pollution, maternity wards and school dinners combined, hydrogen has become one of the hottest topics in Westminster, according to research conducted by Pump it Up, the commercial heat pump advocacy campaign.
Taking pride of place in the Prime Minister’s ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’, hydrogen has the future potential to reduce GHG emissions across the three key areas of power, transport and heat.
With 780 mentions in Parliament in the 10 years since 2011, hydrogen has become the third most discussed breakthrough energy solution of the last decade. Only the as-yet immature solution of Carbon Capture and Storage (1300 mentions) and the short and wholly unproductive political obsession with fracking (1517 mentions) have been afforded greater Parliamentary airtime.
Yet in 2020, hydrogen received almost 50 more Parliamentary mentions than fracking in 2014 (343 mentions), at the height of fracking hype. On its current trajectory, hydrogen will surpass fracking in 2021 to become the most discussed breakthrough energy solution of the decade.
The trouble is, nobody knows whether and when hydrogen will be able to make a meaningful contribution to the reduction of GHG emissions. Prohibitively high costs and complex logistics are among the many factors obstructing the advent of a UK ‘hydrogen economy’.
Having committed to reach net zero emissions by 2050, the truth is that the UK Government, together with its independent Committee on Climate Change advisors, currently anticipate only a modest contribution from hydrogen any time soon.
In heating, that means an initial trial of hydrogen boilers in 300 Fife homes in 2023, potentially leading to the first UK village to be heated by hydrogen by 2025 and the first town by 2030. In the meantime, Government intends for the deployment of proven heat pump technology to have scaled to 600,000 units per year by 2028.
Speaking on behalf of the Pump it Up campaign, Erda Energy’s Kevin Stickney said: “It’s quite right that the what-ifs of hydrogen are explored at pace. But why are our politicians giving so much air time to this and not the solutions that are ready now? Political rhetoric is not harmless. The hype around hydrogen is misleading customers and it is seemingly distracting ministers from shaping a policy environment to support other, ready-to-deploy, heat decarbonisation technologies”.
Star Energy’s Dave Pearson, also a Pump it Up member, added: “Failure to adopt proven heat pumps in all viable applications, having ignored the basic physics of hydrogen, is walking the public and business owners towards a “sometime-maybe” solution that by their own data will be 2-4 times as expensive as gas and use 6 times as much input electricity as heat pumps. That’s why the Committee on Climate Change’s clearly stated mission for 2030 is to deploy heat pumps wherever possible. If we don’t get the policy environment right for heat pumps, we’ll be burning gas, not hydrogen, well into the 2030s and beyond. Surely it makes sense to use the existing Climate Change Levy to support the deployment of clean heat now”
In their August 2020 paper ‘Heating in Great Britain: An incumbent discourse coalition resists an electrifying future’, UK academics Richard Lowes, Bridget Woodman (both University of Exeter) and Jamie Speirs (Imperial College London), find that the proposed use of hydrogen for heat has risen rapidly up the policy agenda, at a time when political lobbying for hydrogen by fossil fuel incumbents has spiked.
They suggest that: “Due to the uncertainties associated with hydrogen, in the short term, deployment of known low carbon heating technologies should be at a rate commensurate with the 2050, net-zero target with the expectation that low carbon gas including hydrogen may not prove viable at scale”.
About the Pump it Up campaign
The Pump it Up campaign is calling on government to embrace early wins in heat decarbonisation by unleashing large-scale heat pump projects.
A logjam of commercial heat pump projects is building up. They were preparing to enter construction via the Renewable Heat Incentive, now being phased out.
Pump it Up members have brought forward large-scale heat pump projects in a wide variety of sectors, including retail, utilities, agriculture, housing and academia. Compared to other heat decarbonisation options, these projects are characterised by their high efficiency, high flexibility and low emissions.
With political attention elsewhere, there is currently insufficient policy support to realise this potential to any meaningful degree.
As a result, commercial-scale carbon savings, available today, are being left on the table.
The members of the Pump it Up campaign are: Black Mountain Developments, Erda Energy, Low Carbon Farming, Oasthouse Ventures, Possible, ReEnergise, Solid Energy, Star Refrigeration, ThamesWey and Zero Carbon Yorkshire.