We still don’t know enough about new heat technologies to decide the best way forward

Posted: March 2, 2021 by tallbloke in Emissions, Energy, fuel poverty, government, hydrogen, innovation, Subsidies, Taxpayer

Posted on  by Green Alliance blog

This post is a reblog of an article by Dr Robert Sansom, independent consultant and member of the IET’s Energy Policy Panel.

Recently, Professor Cebon wrote on this blog that pursuing the hydrogen economy would be a mistake. I am neither an advocate of hydrogen nor am I associated with the oil and gas industry, but I was the lead author of a report, produced by the IET in 2019, which focused on the engineering questions that need to be addressed if the UK is to transition to hydrogen.  There are also major questions around the electrification of heat. Until these questions are dealt with, I do not believe anyone can say that one technology is better than another.

Ruling hydrogen out would be unwise
Let me start with hydrogen.  Often the focus seems to be on two hydrogen production methods, ie natural gas reforming versus electrolysis.  The criticisms made by Professor Cebon and others is that even with carbon capture and storage (CCS), reforming using natural gas as a feedstock, is not very green, that it is only promoted by the oil and gas industry and that the technology for large scale production has yet to be developed.  Whereas production of hydrogen from electrolysis requires huge investment in renewable generation, coupled with electrolysis plant, and is very inefficient.

But there are other choices for hydrogen production.  For example, from biomass gasification.  This is important because, to achieve net zero, the UK must have a strategy for greenhouse gas removals.  Possibly, in future, we might be able to decarbonise without the need for removals but that is not the case at present.  The key technology here is biomass with CCS (or BECCS).  The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC’s) sixth carbon budget report has 250TWh of energy bioenergy and waste by 2050 in its Balanced Net Zero Pathway, most of which is indigenous.  In addition there is scope for imported hydrogen, produced using solar PV, which also has substantial potential.

These options warrant further investigation before a decision can be made. Ruling them out at this stage would be unwise.  For example, it is possible that gas reforming using a combination of autothermal reformers and gas thermal reformers could achieve high levels of conversion efficiency with extremely high levels of carbon capture.  We should certainly do more to find out if that is the case.  Similarly, the cost of wind power has dropped considerably and there is optimism that the cost and efficiency of electrolysers will also improve in the near future, to be on par with, or possibly better than, gas reforming for hydrogen production.  Likewise, we should find out more.  There are challenges with importing hydrogen, particularly in terms of losses, but again it is worth testing.

There are significant obstacles to adopting heat pumps
The argument for air source heat pumps can be very persuasive, the conversion efficiency of heat from electric heat pumps is will  be much higher than that from hydrogen.  However, the main obstacles to heat pumps come from the changes required to the UK’s housing stock, electricity network upgrades and the provision of hot water. 

Without significant energy efficiency improvements to most of the UK’s housing stock, domestic heat pumps will underperform.  Heat pumps will also increase electricity demand by a lot, which is likely to require the street circuit network to be upgraded.  This is estimated to take about one month per circuit.  Typically, a street circuit will supply 100 to 200 houses and so the scale of the reinforcement programme will be enormous, costly and very disruptive.  

A typical heat pump is likely to be between 5kWth to 10kWth and incapable of supplying hot water on demand, so some form of hot water storage will be required.  Retrofitting hot water storage to the many properties that don’t have hot water tanks will be expensive and is unlikely to be welcomed by householders if it involves a loss of storage space.  In addition, the amount of hot water storage required will need to take account of the longer time it takes to heat water, particularly if the pump is also heating the home.  This may mean that more storage is required to compensate.  The alternative is to heat water directly using immersion heaters and electric showers.  But these operate at a much lower efficiency and higher cost, and would also possibly further increase the need for network reinforcement.

The main point is that we still don’t know enough about these alternative heating technologies, so we should certainly not rule any of them out at this stage.  Our focus over the next few years should be to find out more about how they can work, particularly in terms of cost, performance, implementation logistics, as well as consumer needs.  This can only be done by trialling them at scale so that we are able to make the best decisions on the way forward.

This is not an excuse for procrastination.  In the meantime, we should get going on a nationwide programme of housing insulation improvements.  The UK’s housing stock is shocking, not just in terms of energy efficiency but also in terms of the impact on householders’ health and comfort.  We can start that immediately with a target housing insulation improvement of 30 per cent, roughly equivalent to increasing the average rating to EPC C across the UK.  For heat pumps, this is essential, particularly for older buildings, but it is also necessary for hydrogen, as it will reduce the volume required if it is adopted for heating.

  1. JB says:

    Discursive rationalizations that ignore the sperm whale in the kitchen

  2. ilma630 says:

    I guess the root of the problem in chasing all these alternative energy sources, is that they are predicated on the false notion that we *must* achieve net-zero, i.e. dramatically cut CO2 emissions. There is just no evidence that says this is required. Chasing non-problems like this removes a huge amount of resource from solving real problems, many of which actually need plentiful, cheap, reliable energy, e.g. water purification and distribution in developing countries, education infrastructure in these same countries, i.e. the core drivers of a thriving economy. Point energy solutions such as hydrogen may have application, but they are not a panacea. Outside of their ‘sweet spots’, they are very inefficient, difficult to handle, so expensive.

  3. pochas94 says:

    Just like a baby about to take his first step. You know what’s going to happen.

  4. It doesn't add up... says:

    There has just been a big experiment with heat pumps down in Texas. They came up seriously short, with resort to using gasoline to power car heaters being common. The demand surge on the grid imposed by the surge in resistance heating demand completely overwhelmed it.

    As to recommending insulation in line with the government planned policy, there is not the slightest evidence that it makes any kind of sense. Indeed the failure of the far less ambitious Green Deal scheme demonstrates it us almost certainly an expensive folly.

    Shilling for Drax and its BECCS plans is equally unimpressive. Let’s have a pilot plant that they fund themselves. Cancelling the reliable, dispatchable, flexible 3.6GW CCGT plant that can at least do something to offset the intermittent wind generation that comes ashore nearby will prove to be a great folly.

  5. tonylovellphone says:

    Clean Safe Nuclear using mini Saltwater Reactors which immediately re-use the waste that would take 300 years to lose its radioactivity in a standard reactor and eliminates the 200,000 year radioactive waste altogether, must surely come out top in every test. They can be used as simple replacements for coal and gas boilers in existing plants so avoiding the wastage of all that generation equipment and save the sites and jobs associated with those generating plants.

    As for fuelling vehicles the best and yet least discussed option is the Aluminium Air battery highly refined by a British Submariner and ready to go for the past 20 years, giving cars a range of 1800 miles at 8p per mile cost. No recharging, just a 90 second trade-in and its up and running again. They could even be used to run heating and power in homes replacing mains electricity and boilers.

    What could be better?

  6. oldbrew says:

    If so-called greenhouse gases are your obsession, water vapour is your main problem. Good luck trying to suppress that.
    – – –

    World Leaders Pledge To Cut Emissions By As Much As They Can Realistically Back Out Of

    “This agreement sets ambitious goals for reducing our carbon footprint, but not so ambitious that we can’t come up with a plausible-seeming excuse when we inevitably fail to meet its benchmarks,” read a joint statement…
    . . .
    At press time, a new report issued by the U.N. had found that half of the parties had already succeeded in reneging on the agreement signed earlier that morning.


  7. Johna says:

    Another stupid fantasy which if enacted by our lame duck stupid politicians will end in a nightmare for our country economy and people. CO2 never has, isn’t and cannot cause climate change and all or most of the NG utilisation in the report can be met by coal which also gives H. The real technical challenge is to mine coal safely and use it far more efficiently and cleanly at a cost to make our industrial exports ultra completive by proving low cost electricity. Methane hydrogen as well as a plethora of cheap chemicals can also be extracted from coal. So what if our chums in the EU complain if we subsidise its R&D and commercial roll out as its a dog eat dog world anyway. And until this got out of hand by said politicians the UK energy policy under Tory and Labour was to keep coal gas and oil until renewable energies proved to be cheaper reliable and secure.

  8. Stephen Richards says:

    Looks like the UK may pass the Danes and germans if they stay on their current path and they will as long as Carrie is pulling the plonker

  9. Adam Gallon says:

    About time that graph was renewed.

  10. Graeme No.3 says:

    The cheapest State for electricity in Australia is Queensland, where they rely on black coal fired plants. They export electricity into NSW where the Green bug has bitten the politicians.
    South Australia has the highest percentage of supply from “renewables” and the highest cost.

  11. oldbrew says:

    ‘A typical heat pump is likely to be between 5kWth to 10kWth and incapable of supplying hot water on demand, so some form of hot water storage will be required.’

    Many people in the UK have installed gas combi boilers in the last few decades, often removing their old hot water cylinders at the same time. It will cost them the best part of £1000 to get a new cylinder fitted.

    All pain for no gain.

  12. It doesn't add up... says:

    I updated the chart using BP 2020 and EUrostat 2020 2at half.


    Looks fairly similar, but with a bit more scatter.

  13. oldbrew says:

    An hour of alarmist climate propaganda on TV tonight.

    Can We Cool the Planet?
    8.40pm, PBS America

    – – –
    Or watch it here, now.

  14. Coeur de Lion says:

    GWPF’s Dr John Constable predicts heavyweight increases in electricity prices which will impact on heat pump plans as well as the mad plan to cook and heat on electricity instead of gas. Quadrupling cost. I don’t see the Red Wall liking this. People may start to ask. “What is this for ?”

  15. gallopingcamel says:

    Thanks to “Globalists” stupid government is now the norm. Probably the most stupid idea in human history was to prevent people from going to work with the idea that would reduce the impact of COVID-19.

    Jurisdictions that continued without mandatory restrictions (aka “Business as Usual”) did better than most of the “Lockdown Jurisdictions”. Sweden did better than most states in Europe. South Dakota did better than most states in the USA.

    States that lifted restrictions early like Georgia, Texas and Florida have done much better than “Lockdown States” like California, New Jersey and New York.

    Not content with the catastrophic idea of “Lockdowns” we now have a government in the USA that takes the “Green New Deal” seriously. If our stupid government follows through they will have plenty of company. The GND may be an even dumber idea than Lockdowns.

    With that in mind y’all need to see this:

    If you have the stamina here is a longer presentation:

  16. E.M.Smith says:

    Methanol makes a nice motor fuel, can be made from coal cheaply too. One carbon per molecular is irrelevant to anyone not Greenmad.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s