Hydrogen gas boilers could speed up global warming, new report suggests

A UK Government scheme to heat millions of homes in the UK using hydrogen boilers could increase carbon emissions and speed up global warming, according to a new academic study by Cornell University.

MPs are rushing to secure a key part of the country’s net-zero carbon strategy after the findings in a peer-reviewed study suggested that even hydrogen produced using allegedly low-emission methods can be more polluting than gas or coal.

The research threatens to jeopardise plans for a block on the sale of new natural gas boilers in the UK from the mid-2030s. The study came as the Financial Times reported that the UK Government is backing away from this ban due to concerns over what it will cost householders.

After being contacted about the concerns, which will be published this morning in the journal Energy Science and Engineering, the UK Government pledged to consult on new rules to ensure low-carbon processes are used to produce hydrogen. This potentially creates hurdles for oil and gas majors such as Shell and BP, which have put production of the gas at the heart of their plans to go green.

Hydrogen does not produce C02 emissions when burned, and so is being touted as a replacement for fossil fuels in everything from heavy industry to aviation and home heating.

However, at present, the fuel is most commonly produced by extracting it from natural gas and this process is a huge source of emissions.
Manufacturers are planning to deal with this by attaching plants to carbon capture facilities that stash the greenhouse gases created underground, generating what is known as “blue hydrogen”.

The new paper warns that no carbon capture system developed so far is currently mopping up all emissions, The Telegraph reports. 

Carbon capture is also energy-hungry in itself, they add, while producing natural gas also leads to methane emissions.

The paper reads: “Perhaps surprisingly, the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20pc greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat and some 60pc greater than burning diesel oil for heat.

“Our analysis assumes that captured carbon dioxide can be stored indefinitely, an optimistic and unproven assumption. Even if true though, the use of blue hydrogen appears difficult to justify on climate grounds.”

The study was led by Professor Robert Howarth at Cornell University and received funding from the Park Foundation in the US, which wants there to be a “managed decline” in fossil fuels and resists new oil and gas drilling.

Professor Howarth draws on carbon capture rates at existing projects, of which there are few. His core findings are based on using fossil fuels to produce electricity to power carbon capture, and he concedes emissions would be significantly lower if renewable power is used.

Activists have already voiced concerns that oil and gas firms are promoting blue hydrogen to prolong the life of their gas business. BP is working on a blue hydrogen facility in Teesside.

The UK Government wants the UK to be producing 5GW of “low-carbon” hydrogen by 2030 as part of its wider aim of hitting net zero in 2050, but has not specified whether this will be from natural gas or electrolysis. It plans to produce a hydrogen strategy shortly.

The Climate Change Committee, adviser to the Government, has done analysis suggesting that blue hydrogen can save up to 85pc of emissions compared to fossil fuels but that more research is needed.

A government spokesman said: “We will consult on a new UK standard for low-carbon hydrogen production to ensure the technologies we support make a real contribution to our goals.”