A tale of two energy futures – and some zombies

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To meet carbon commitments there are two future ‘heat’ worlds emerging.

Should we move to hydrogen gas or electric heating? Each pathway has opportunities and consequences which need to be considered now as we approach the energy crossroads.

There is one camp which believes in a switchover to hydrogen. This basically means piping hydrogen instead of methane down our existing gas pipes as we do now. Hydrogen which has been generated from water using low carbon electricity. Many of the existing pipes are good to use for this as the gas distributors have been switching to plastic for a while, replacing the old metal pipes some of which wouldn’t have worked. The rest of the kit doesn’t switch quite so easily. Certainly, existing boilers won’t run on pure hydrogen (hydrogen flames behave very differently to methane – they are colder and colourless so you don’t know your boiler’s on). Technology-wise it’s certainly possible. However, the logistics are huge; once each section of network switches over, each customer is going to have to switch kit in their house at the same time. Such a change may also have to be forced on consumers – quite a challenge if you think about some of the challenges of consumer engagement in the current smart meter programme!

The second group is pushing for a more electricity-led future, with extremely low carbon electricity being used to run heat pumps to provide heat. This is probably a more well-trodden path from a technology perspective. Heat pumps are already proving economical for off-gas grid properties, and commercially, with some subsidy from the government (Renewable Heat Incentive), work well. The key question here is whether the electricity grid could cope with the increase in demand… which would definitely be big, especially as it comes alongside the exponential rise in popularity of electric vehicles drawing from the same power source. Those lobbying for a hydrogen future often site this strain on the network as a key risk of the electrical future, whilst those pushing for electricity point towards the proven smart technology in supply and demand side balancing (turning stuff on and off at the best times!).

With many difficult decisions, often the solution lies in the middle… but in this case, I am not so sure. A partial switch each way leaves a risk of a gas ‘zombie’ grid.

The technology choices we make now, do make a difference to how a future heat source swap could be achieved. Discover how…

John Armstrong


Wednesday 21st November 2018 |  11:40  –  12:10

TheatreFacilities, Technology and Innovation

John Armstrong
Head of Operations – City Energy Solutions
E.ON Energy Solutions

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