UCL Energy Institute


Could we heat homes using fuel cells and hydrogen in the future?

19 May 2014

Palestra Fuel Cell CHP System (Credit: Lars Plougmann, 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0)

UK homes and businesses could be heated using fuel cells and hydrogen in the future, while simultaneously generating their own electricity a new study by UCL Energy Institute and Imperial College researchers has found. As well as reducing CO2 emissions, the report shows how hydrogen and fuel cells could increase UK energy security.

The report, “The role of hydrogen and fuel cells in providing affordable, secure low-carbon heat”, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) through the Research Councils’ SUPERGEN Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Hub, was launched at 10.00am on Monday 19 May at City Hall in London. The Chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, Tim Yeo MP, gave a policy maker’s response to the report at the launch.

Professor Paul Ekins, Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources and Professor of Resources and Environment Policy at the UCL Energy Institute, University College London said:

“This study suggests that hydrogen and fuel cells for heating should receive policy support equal to that for other potential low-carbon heat sources, in order to keep open the option for its significant deployment in the future. Heat from hydrogen and fuel cells has some advantages over other low-carbon heat sources, and its costs have greatly reduced in recent years. If this trend continues, it could play an important role in reducing peak power demands and finding a new role for the gas grid in a low-carbon UK energy system.”

The briefing below provides further details of the study’s findings.

Report title: “The role of hydrogen and fuel cells in providing affordable, secure low-carbon heat”.

Editors: Dr Paul Dodds (UCL Energy Institute) and Dr Adam Hawkes (Imperial College)

Authors: Professor Paul Ekins (UCL), Will McDowall (UCL), Dr Francis Li (UCL), Dr Iain Staffell (Imperial College), Dr Philipp Grünewald (Imperial College), Dr Paul Dodds (UCL Energy Institute), Tia Kansara (UCL Energy Institute), Dr Adam Hawkes (Imperial College) and Dr Paolo Agnolucci (UCL Energy Institute)

Media contact: Ellie Jones, e.jones@ucl.ac.uk, 0207 679 9027

Image: Palestra Fuel Cell CHP System (Credit: Lars Plougmann, 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Briefing on the findings of the report “The role of hydrogen and fuel cells in providing affordable, secure low-carbon heat”

Fuel cells are already being used around the world for heating. Although fuel cells have mainly been viewed as a low-carbon option for cars in the UK, more fuel cells have been sold for heating than for any other application. In Japan, sales of residential fuel cells have doubled every year for the last 10 years. The costs of fuel cells have greatly reduced in recent years and they will be sold without subsidies in Japan from 2015.

In the longer term, hydrogen could be piped to homes and businesses as a low-carbon alternative to natural gas. Hydrogen could replace natural gas in condensing boilers, as well as powering fuel cells, and would avoid some of the disadvantages of alternative technologies such as heat pumps, which have high capital costs, poor performance if installed or operated badly, and require much space in houses.

Despite these potential benefits, the study finds that hydrogen and fuel cells have generally been excluded or marginalised in heat technology assessments and government policy papers, where the analysis has focused on a small portfolio of technologies such as heat pumps. Most modelling studies that have supported these papers have also not considered hydrogen and fuel cells. The two reviewed that have considered them have found a clear long-term role for hydrogen technologies in providing low-carbon heating in the UK.

Hydrogen can be produced from numerous fuels, reducing the reliance of the UK on natural gas from unstable regions of the world. Meanwhile, fuel cells generate decentralised electricity and can continue to work even during blackouts. Fuel cells could also reduce the costs of energy in the future if heat pumps and battery-powered cars become widespread, by generating electricity at peak times and reducing the need for back-up centralised electricity generation.

No low-carbon technologies will be successful without government support in the early stages of development, and the researchers show that policies addressing market failures for low-carbon technologies do not generally extend to hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, despite fuel cells being successfully supported towards commercial maturity abroad. Yet the UK has an opportunity to develop a hydrogen and fuel cell industry for heating; it has a strong scientific base in hydrogen and fuel cell research, and support at home would enable UK companies to capture a share of fast-growing global supply chains for hydrogen and fuel cell heating technologies.

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