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1st Oct 2023

MEPs to vote on risky 'hydrogen for home heating' rule

  • Hydrogen heating is dubbed an expensive alternative to already booming electric heat pumps (Photo: Erik Maclean)
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On Thursday (9 February), the industry committee in the European Parliament will cast an important vote setting out how the bloc can decarbonise its building stock by 2050.

This includes greener forms of heating for the approximately 130 million buildings within the member states, 90 percent of which are residential housing.

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  • 'Using hydogen as a source for general heating will push up the price for industries that actually need it, making industries less competitive' (Photo: GollyGforce)

Heating is the single most important driver of energy consumption in Europe, responsible for 35 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. This makes the so-called Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) a crucial measure of success of the bloc's sustainability policies.

Initially, the EU Commission proposed all new buildings should have an electric heat pump. But the directive was nearly scuppered in October 2022 when some member states, including Italy, resisted mandatory renovation targets.

Lead negotiator Ciaran Cuffe, a Green MEP from Ireland, in an effort to gain support for a new text in parliament and restart the file, has struck a compromise with the conservative European People's Party that saves the renovation targets — but would also allow hydrogen as sustainable fuel to heat homes as well.

This is a long-wished-for amendment pushed for by European Heating Industry (EHI), a lobby group for the gas-boiler industry, which in turn is part of the wider European Hydrogen Alliance, a Shell and BP-backed lobbying effort to maximise the use of hydrogen.

EPP rapporteur Sean Kelly, an Irish MEP, has been an outspoken advocate for green hydrogen as a source of heat.

But a broad coalition of experts now warns against using hydrogen as heating, calling it a "dangerous distraction."

Race is already over

According to a feasibility study by the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology published in February, green hydrogen is two to three times more expensive than electrified heat pumps.

It is the latest in a long list of studies that similarly conclude hydrogen is not fit for heating. In a wide-ranging review of all 32 studies covering hydrogen for heating "not carried out on behalf of industry" published since 2019, Jan Rosenow, director of European programmes at the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), found not one suggested a major role for green hydrogen as a fuel for heating.

The fact hydrogen heating has not taken off yet is largely due to its inherent inefficiency. Compared to electrified heating pumps, hydrogen uses six times more energy to produce the same amount of heat.

This is due energy losses incurred during hydrogen production, transport and direct use. According to research from Agora Energiewende hydrogen is up to 84 percent less efficient as a source of heating than direct electrification of heatpumpts in the residential sector.

And while hydrogen heating doesn't exist yet outside of a few small pilot projects, markets for heat pumps have already taken off and doubled in some EU countries in 2022, with some 20 million units installed in the EU.

"The race is over. The race has been won," Andreas Graf, a senior policy expert at Agora Energiewende, a German think tank, told EUobserver.

Explosions and asthma

To use it as a source of heating or an energy source for millions of people is a "complete fantasy," Paul Martin, senior chemical technology expert and a designer of chemical plants who has worked in sustainable energy for 30 years, told EUobserver.

Replacing gas with hydrogen is proposed as a convenient way to extend the life of existing gas infrastructure, Martin explained. But far from being an easy fit, existing gas pipelines and transmission systems will need a thorough overhaul to allow for hydrogen. Even residential stoves and boilers will need to be replaced with appliances that do not exist in the market today.

And according to a safety assessment conducted on behalf of the UK government, the risk of explosions in homes will increase four times compared with natural gas, plus more nitrous oxide will be released, causing asthma.

Higher bills

While green hydrogen has a role to play and will be needed to replace fossil hydrogen used in steel, chemical and ammonia production, Graf describes it as a "rare resource."

"Using it as a source for general heating will push up the price for industries that actually need it, making our industries less competitive," he said. "Policy can't turn a blind eye to wasteful energy use anymore. That is why the EU has an energy-efficiency target of 15 percent."

"Far too many consumers struggle to heat their homes today. Green-lighting boilers that could run on hydrogen or biomethane in the future will only make matters worse," Jaume Loffredo, senior energy policy officer at the European Consumer Organisation, told EUobserver.

MEPs will vote on the directive on Thursday (9 February.)

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