Decarbonisation of heat in the public sector

decarbonisation of heat, hydrogen

Chris Jackson, CEO and Founder of Protium Green Solutions Ltd, explores how the public sector can decarbonise the demand of heat

Delivering a Net Zero UK by 2050 will require the fastest and most ambitious energy system transformation ever undertaken. In less than 30 years we will have to transform how we use, store and consume energy and this means the infrastructure that underpins our society must be re-designed and rebuilt.

To have any realistic chance of achieving this goal, the UK must make investments and strategic choices today and investing in hydrogen is key. In the UK, transport accounts for 29% of all energy consumed, but the other 71% is heat and electricity[1], so if we are to succeed then we must start by recognising the elephant in the room – how do we decarbonise our demand for heat?

What are the options?

Various solutions for the decarbon­isation of heat have been proposed such as electrification, biomass, biomethane or hybrid systems such as district heating. Heat pumps are a very efficient means of decarbonising heat for residential and small commercial users, with proven technology available but high capex and a significant footprint is often needed. Bio-energy resources are also widely used and continue to be deployed, though their pace is expected to decline with the end of the non-domestic RHI in the UK. District heating has been widely used in Europe and while attempts have been made by public sector bodies, few if any have got off the ground. The financing having been challenging to secure.

Simply put, all these technologies can and must play a role in the pursuit of net-zero, but none will be a silver bullet for all energy solutions. Not all buildings are suitable for 100% electrification, nor is there a sufficient supply of bio-energy resources domestically to meet all our heat demand. It is because of these limitations that large energy consumers such as the public sector should be looking more at what role hydrogen can play in helping them to decarbonise.

Why Hydrogen?

Hydrogen is an energy vector, or fuel if you like, that can be created from renewable power and water, or from processes that encourage hydrogen to escape its bonds with carbon-based fuels, e.g., natural gas. Hydrogen can be combusted to generate heat, with commercial and residential boilers commercially available that can use hydrogen either in its pure form or blended with other gases e.g., biomethane, natural gas, etc. But it can also generate heat through fuel cell technologies that combine hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity, heat and water. These solutions are similar to conventional fossil fuel-based CHP systems, but with the notable benefits that they are quieter, they can reduce particulate emissions by filtering the air to extract oxygen, and as an electro-chemical process they have fewer moving parts and require less maintenance.

Hydrogen is attractive is because we have used it before. The old town gas system in the UK consumed up to 21TWh of hydrogen during the 1960’s-70s, where it made up almost 50% of the UK gas grid. Hydrogen indeed is still part of several gas grids internationally, including Hong Kong and Singapore where it is blended alongside natural gas for use in heat and power generation.

Another benefit is that it is flexible, with the ability to produce hydrogen at differing times during the day, month or year and store it until needed. An important linked benefit of these elements is reliability and resiliency. The gas network in the UK provides a vast amount of energy storage and resiliency against extreme weather events such as the beast from the east. In a similar manner, hydrogen can provide long term seasonal storage and thus help to facilitate the integration of the UK’s abundant, but intermittent, renewable power resources such as solar PV and wind.

Why should hydrogen matter to public sector organisations?

The public sector is a unique energy consumer. It has a duty to consider the long-term implications of its investments, it places a higher value on resiliency and reliability and many private sector entities, and it can leverage state-backed resources more effectively to drive through significant change. These factors are crucial because the most immediate reason why the public sector should be looking at hydrogen is time. Heating systems are often designed to last for 25 years or more, which means that public sector bodies who are looking at new heating investments today must pick solutions that can deliver zero-emission heat over their asset lifetimes. Failure to do so will not only bake in inertia towards continued fossil fuel use, but could also lead to stranded assets that are retired before the end of their operational life.

Preparing for and exploring the role of hydrogen for decarbonising heat in public sector operations should be regarded as a no-regrets decision. Hydrogen ready boilers (and fuel cells) today can function on the existing gas grid, and with varying blends of hydrogen as the grid transitions over time. These technologies can also sit alongside heat pumps and other zero-emission technologies if/when they become more widespread in their deployment. Projects such as HyHy by Wales & West are good examples of this.

Public sector engagement with hydrogen is growing. In Norway and Sweden schools have begun looking at hydrogen, while US hospitals are deploying fuel cells and off-grid Australian communities are looking at hydrogen for storage and balancing of renewables. The UK has also made tentative steps towards hydrogen and fuel cells systems, such as a 1.4MW Fuel cell CHP at Aberdeen a 200kW Fuel Cell CHP for Woking leisure centre and hydrogen boilers to replace fuel oil for heating in the Orkneys. But more can and must be done to achieve net-zero.

How can Protium help?

Protium is a green hydrogen energy company that delivers zero-emission energy solutions to companies and organisations that are committed to achieving net-zero. We develop, build, finance and operate green hydrogen and renewable energy infrastructure assets to provide zero-emission hydrogen energy services, a model we call a HESCO. We work with consumer-facing manufacturers, such as Bruichladdich in Islay to decarbonise heat demand, but also with public sector bodies such as hospitals, council buildings and locally owned infrastructure such as airports.

Working with public sector bodies, we allow organisations to access the benefits of decarbonised heat solutions without them absorbing the technical risks or having to finance the upfront capex needed. We allow organisations to move faster than the grid alone might facilitate and thus help organisations to truly lead on net-zero by providing dedicated green hydrogen solutions.

[1] BEIS, 2020, page 9,

*Please note: this is a commercial profile

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Protium Green Solutions Ltd
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