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Hydrogen crucial for energy resilience

© Shutterstock / ThesamphotographyDick Winchester says hydrogen heating systems can improve resilience and reduce the chances of power cuts.
Dick Winchester says hydrogen heating systems can improve resilience and reduce the chances of power cuts.

I live in a small village in beautiful Aberdeenshire. We have been known to suffer from power cuts here due to overhead powerline failures, storms and the occasional transformer committing hari-kari. These things do happen so, having had the importance of resilience hammered into me by my dad, who was an electrical supply engineer, I designed my energy system accordingly.

Nothing complex about it. In fact, it’s simple. To deal with the prospect of my oil-fired, central-heating condensing boiler not working in the event of a power cut or another failure I installed a wood burning stove. To ensure we could carry on cooking and boiling water for hot drinks we use an LPG hob fed by two gas bottles with a switchover device. A bottle will often last six months.

Over the 30 years we’ve been in this house we’ve had to fall back on the wood burner quite a few times. It also makes a great slow cooker by the way.

The question is what to do next. Recognising the need in the next few years to swap out my oil boiler for something that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, I have had to make a choice.

That choice is between fitting an electric heat pump or a hydrogen fired boiler. That said, there is a third choice, which is to raze my 140 year-old house to the ground, clear the site and build a nice new house to “passiv-haus” standards, meaning hardly any heating would be required. However, unless someone is prepared to give me the winning numbers for the Euro Lottery, that simply isn’t going to happen. Even trying to bring the existing house up to passiv-haus standards would be a hugely expensive exercise.

Installing a hydrogen boiler is easy. It would effectively be a straight swap. Hydrogen boiler for oil boiler and hydrogen gas tank for oil tank. Nothing else changes. Bit of plumbing and the job’s done and we can carry on as before. I can also use that hydrogen tank to feed my gas hob. We prefer cooking with gas anyway as indeed do many others. And, as I’ve said, it provides some resilience.

A heat pump in our house is a non-starter. The work required to install it would be extensive especially given that our old house would need a lot of work to install even more insulation and believe me, I’ve already put in a huge amount of that already.

An estimate I made last year suggested a heat pump could end up costing me five times more than a hydrogen boiler, I don’t find that very appealing. I have no desire to make the mainly overseas or financial sector owned electricity suppliers any richer than they already are.

However, the core issue for me remains one of energy resilience. The increasing demand on the grid caused by the rise in use of battery vehicles all of which need charging is going to increase even more dramatically if there is a major growth in the use of heat pumps.

It’s already happening in Norway which banned the use of home heating oil last year. With that and the push to eliminate internal combustion engine vehicles, more than 75% of Norway’s energy consumption is now electric.

State-owned grid operator Statnett said that with Norwegians using a record 25.1 gigawatts of electricity on February 4, “we really want people not to charge or heat their electric car between eight and nine in the morning.”

It was also reported by Norway’s E24 news that demand had risen so much that morning that the average cost for electricity increased 600%. Worth noting that this happened despite the fact battery vehicles in Norway still only account for 10% or so of the market.

Imperial College London Researchers recently urged the UK to invest in alternatives as growing reliance on wind and solar leaves the energy grid exposed to extreme weather. This is good advice. Hydrogen with bulk storage is ideal.

Back in my little village of 150 or so houses our lack of a gas grid connection means we couldn’t get hydrogen piped in if we wanted it. We should produce our own using water from the river that flows past here.

The technology to do that already exists although, we don’t manufacture any of it in Scotland. That notwithstanding, a professionally designed production-storage setup using a wind turbine or two plus some solar driving an electrolyser would allow us to generate all the hydrogen we need.

It could then be delivered around the village by a fuel cell powered electric vehicle. Excess heat from the electrolyser could be used to heat a community greenhouse. This surely is a win-win situation.

Importantly it also means people take back control and get the benefit, not the electricity company shareholders. Critically, it also means it’s a lot less likely the lights will go out. We should do it everywhere but particularly in rural areas.

Dick Winchester is a member of the Scottish Government’s oil and gas and energy transition strategic leadership group

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