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Brit MPs pour cold water on hydrogen as mass replacement for fossil fuels

But gas likely to find a 'big niche' in rail, aviation, shipping, and industry

Hydrogen is not likely to be practically and economically viable for mass use in the short and medium term for heating homes or fueling passenger cars, a report from UK Members of Parliament has concluded.

The universe's most abundant element has been mooted as a green alternative to fossil fuels, but the associated cost, technological and infrastructure challenges, as well as the "unassailable" market lead held by alternatives such as electric cars, mean it is likely to remain "a big niche" fuel in particular sectors and applications, the Commons Science and Technology Committee found.

The UK government has said all new boilers installed from 2026 should be "hydrogen-ready". The policy followed a string of announcements about the gas as a strong contender in the shift towards a zero-carbon economy.

In August 2021, the government launched its Hydrogen Strategy [PDF], which said hydrogen could be a "versatile replacement for high-carbon fuels used today – helping to bring down emissions in vital UK industrial sectors and providing flexible energy for power, heat and transport."

It also made it into former prime minister Boris Johnson's Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution promising up to £500 million ($609 million) for hydrogen investment, including trialing homes using hydrogen for heating and cooking, starting with a Hydrogen Neighborhood in 2023, moving to a Hydrogen Village by 2025, with the aim for a Hydrogen Town – equivalent to tens of thousands of homes – before the end of the decade.

However, after hearing evidence from industry experts, the Science and Technology Committee concluded hydrogen would have a "specific but limited" role in decarbonizing sectors where electrification is not possible and as a means of storing energy.

But it was "unconvinced" hydrogen would be able to play a wider role in heating homes by 2026, while hydrogen metering in homes had been "overlooked." Energy regulator Ofgem was unable to say whether current smart meters would be suitable for hydrogen.

Committee chairman Greg Clark said: "Hydrogen can play an important role in decarbonizing the UK's economy, but it is not a panacea.

"There are significant infrastructure challenges associated with converting our energy networks to use hydrogen and uncertainty about when low-carbon hydrogen can be produced at scale at an economical cost.

"We welcome the government's high-level strategy and support of hydrogen trials, but future decisions on the role of hydrogen must increasingly be practical, taking into account what is technically and economically achievable. We call on the government to set out a series of decision points, which would give industry the clarity that it needs."

One of the big problems with hydrogen as a green fuel is that it is not green under current production methods. Nearly all industrial hydrogen gas is extracted from natural gas, a process which requires energy, usually from fossil fuels, and one which produces further greenhouse gasses as a byproduct. While the prospect of electrolyzing hydrogen from water using renewable energy is appealing, the approach has yet to be scaled.

"To make a large contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, the production of hydrogen requires significant advances in the economic deployment of CCUS [carbon capture, utilization and storage] and/or the development of a renewable-to-hydrogen capacity. The timing of these is uncertain, and it would be unwise to assume that hydrogen can make a very large contribution to reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions in the short to medium term," the report said.

The report pointed out that if hydrogen were to completely or substantially replace gas in domestic heating systems, "a massive and costly programme of replacing boilers, meters and network infrastructure would likely be required."

"It seems likely that any future use of hydrogen will be limited rather than universal," the report said.

Hydrogen might be useful for applications that are difficult to electrify, such as some parts of the rail network. It might also work well for transport that does not require an extensive refueling network such as local bus services operating out of a fixed number of depots.

Shipping and aviation could also benefit from hydrogen investment, and the gas could be important as a means of energy storage and a source of power for energy-intensive industries like steel, glass and mineral production, the report found.

In the US, a $9.5 billion hydrogen investment is part of president Joe Biden's $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The UK launched its hydrogen strategy in August 2021, claiming production could be worth £13 billion ($14.8 billion) to the economy by 2050. The EU hydrogen strategy was adopted in July 2020, creating the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance. ®

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