Heat From Hydrogen Will Cost Twice As Much As Electricity, Study Finds

So why do companies and governments keep pushing the idea of green hydrogen?

Power to gas from Enbridge

Enbridge Gas

A new study published by the International Council on Clean Transportation examines the future of residential heating, comparing the costs of running furnaces on "green" hydrogen made through electrolysis to the cost of operating air-source heat pumps, and finds that the heat pump system will cost less than half as much.

In many countries where people burn natural gas for heating, there is serious discussion about mixing increasing percentages of hydrogen into the gas to reduce its carbon content; this is being proposed by a Canadian gas company as seen in the illustration above. We have never been fans, calling this a political strategy rather than an energy strategy, but regular Treehugger readers complain that once again, I am making the perfect be the enemy of the good. Writing in response to an earlier post, one commenter wrote:

"The problem with TH [Treehugger] people is that you just don't get that we need pathways to a low carbon future you just can't change countrywide energy system to Low Carbon overnight without devastating things along the way. People need to spend a lot less time talking about Utopia and a lot more time working out how to get there (which is boring and sucky and not fun or cool which is why people don't do it.)"

Actually, we have always proposed the boring and sucky and not fun way to do this, which is to reduce demand through air sealing and insulation and making up the difference with a boring little heat pump. The study confirms that this is going to be the lowest-cost approach to decarbonizing heating.

Heating cost comparison
"The analysis finds that air-source heat pumps are the most cost-effective residential heating technology in 2050 and are at least 50% lower cost than the hydrogen-only technologies. In a sensitivity analysis, we find that even if natural gas costs were 50% lower or renewable electricity prices were 50% higher in 2050 compared to our central assumptions, heat pumps would still be more cost-effective than hydrogen boilers or fuel cells.... At the same time, energy efficiency measures to reduce heat demand would be a more cost-effective strategy for achieving GHG reductions than any of the low-GHG heating pathways we assess in this study."
Heat pumps vis H2

The study notes the inherent inefficiencies of converting electricity to hydrogen and then back into heat, compared to using heat pumps that pull heat out of the air. In really cold climates those heat pumps are not going to be as efficient as they are showing, but electrolyzing water and transporting hydrogen is probably not as efficient as they are showing either.

The study authors also note that as fewer and fewer homes and businesses are hooked up to gas, then the cost of maintaining the gas infrastructure gets significantly higher per customer. Where system upgrades become necessary to handle hydrogen (it can embrittle old metal pipes) "our research suggests, in some cases, it may be less expensive to transfer hydrogen by truck than to retrofit existing gas infrastructure."

Given that the gas furnace will have to be replaced to burn 100% hydrogen, the incremental approach taken by the gas industry makes no sense; if all the equipment has to be swapped out by 2050 anyway, why prolong the agony?

There are many useful things that green hydrogen can be used for, including decarbonizing the manufacture of steel or fertilizer. But every time a new study comes out, it seems more obvious that much of the hydrogen hype is simply about "locking in" the established producers and distributors rather than recognizing right now that we have to increase efficiency and electrify everything. It's inevitable.

View Article Sources
  1. Baldino, Chelsea, et al. "Hydrogen for Heating? Decarbonization Options for Households in the European Union in 2050." International Council on Clean Transportation, 2021.