Tag Archives: bioenergy

Hydrogen and heat pumps may both play a role in UK building heating

Low carbon hydrogen and electricity via heat pumps may both play a large role in decarbonising building heating in the UK.  Ways forward are needed that maintain optionality around solutions while more is learnt about the right mix.

This is the second of three posts looking at the potential role of hydrogen in residential heating in the UK.

Decarbonising building heating in the UK poses a range of challenges.  First, the required transition is very large scale.  There are around 27 million households in the UK, with many more commercial buildings, small and large.  This implies around a million or more premises a year on average need to be converted to low carbon heat between now and 2050.

Along with scale, there is cost.  Replacing the UK’s heating system is expensive both on in total and by household, even if the existing natural gas network can be used for hydrogen.   This challenge is made more difficult by the high seasonality of heating demand (Chart 1).  Building natural gas supply chains, reformers to produce hydrogen from natural gas, CCS, low carbon electricity and heat pumps all involve major capital investment.  Running this for only part of the year – the colder months – increases unit costs substantially. The chart below shows daily gas and electricity demand from non-daily metered (i.e. small) customers.  Demand for energy from gas, the major source of building heating at present, is about two or three times electricity demand during winter, and is much more seasonal.

Chart 1: Heating demand is highly seasonal …

Source: BEIS (2018) ‘Clean Growth – Transforming Heating’ https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/766109/decarbonising-heating.pdf

Furthermore, the transition to low carbon heat needs to be made largely with the UK’s existing building stock, which is mainly old and often badly insulated.  Improved insulation is a priority in any programme, but there are practical and cost constraints on what can be done with existing buildings.  (Buildings also need to be able to cope with the increased prevalence of heat waves as the climate warms, but that is a separate topic.)

Finally, building heating directly affects people’s day to day lives, so consumers’ acceptance is critical.  On the whole the present system, based mainly on natural gas boilers, works quite well except for its emissions.  Any new system should preferably work as well or better.

The leading candidates for low carbon heating in buildings are electricity, almost certainly using heat pumps to increase efficiency, and low carbon hydrogen.  Biomass seems unlikely to be available either at the scale or cost that would be needed for it to be a major contributor to low carbon heating, though it may find a niche.  District heating networks require low carbon heat and this must draw on the same ultimate set of sources of heat.  Waste heat from nuclear, once discussed as a possibility, no longer seems likely to be either practical or cost effective.

Recently the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) analysed the costs of decarbonising heat in 2050 using different approaches.  They looked at electricity, hydrogen, and combinations of the two.  The analysis concluded that a 50% increase over current costs was likely (Chart 2).  The remarkable thing about the analysis is that this cost was similar for all of the options considered.  Any differences were well within the uncertainty of the estimates.

Chart 2: Costs of different modes for decarbonising building heating …

Source:  Committee on Climate Change

With no large cost difference leading to one or the other option being preferred there is a need to test each option out to see which works better in practice.  Mixed solutions may be appropriate in many cases.  For example, hydrogen may be useful in providing top-up heat even if heat pumps are providing the baseload, or may be the only solution for some poorly insulated properties for which heat pumps don’t run at high enough temperatures.

The CCC’s analysis includes expected cost savings.  The transition to low carbon heat will clearly be more acceptable if this cost can be reduced further.  In particular there seem likely to be both technical advances and large economies of scale in heat pump manufacture and installation, and the costs of low carbon power may fall by more than assumed by the CCC.  As the analysis stands, a 50% increase is clearly politically difficult, especially when there do not seem to be advantages for the customer, and potentially some drawbacks.  However, this is less than a 2% p.a. compound increase in real terms over a 30 year period, which might be politically feasible if introduced gradually spread across all consumers.

With such large changes in demand between summer and winter, seasonal storage is a major issue for reasons of both cost and practicality.  This is an under-researched area, and needs further work.  There are various possibilities – storage of hydrogen itself in salt caverns, storage of hydrogen as ammonia or storage of heat in ground sinks, but each has its problems and the scale involved is very large.

A final uncertainty is the form which hydrogen production will take.  At the moment methane in reformers predominates and, with the addition of CCS, may continue to do so.  However both the costs of low carbon electricity and of the electrolysis are decreasing rapidly.  Over the long term this may become the main pathway for hydrogen production.

These uncertainties imply that building heating poses a particularly difficult set of choices for policy.  It is not clear what route, or mix of routes is the right one.  The transition needs to be quite rapid relative to the lifetimes and scale of existing infrastructure, and it involves the need for consumer acceptance.  There are also potentially strong network and lock in issues.

The best approach is likely to be to develop several types of solution in parallel, maintaining optionality while learning, and being prepared for some approaches to be dead ends.  The implications of this include the need for roll out of low carbon heat sources in some districts now to get an idea of how they will work at scale.

Some of this is happening, much more is needed.

Adam Whitmore -29th October 2019.

 

Comparison of cost estimates with previous analysis by this blog.

Around four and a half years ago I looked at the costs of decarbonising domestic heating in the UK in winter using low carbon electricity.  I concluded that switching to low carbon heat would add 75% or more to domestic heating bills, with some drawbacks for consumers (I also looked at higher cost case, but this case no longer seems likely due to the fall in the costs of low carbon electricity, especially offshore wind, since the analysis was done.)  I suggested that this meant that the transition would be difficult and that reductions in capital costs were necessary.

This analysis is broadly consistent with the CCC analysis quoted here, which suggests a 50% increase on current costs.  The estimates are roughly similar given the large uncertainties involved , the inevitable differences is assumptions, and different basis of the estimates.  In particular the CCC analysis factors in reductions in costs of low carbon heating likely by 2050, whereas my previous analysis was based on current costs to make the point that cost reductions are necessary,  Consequently it would be expected that the CCC analysis would show a smaller cost increase relative to current costs.  Also, the CCC’s analysis may exclude some costs – estimates such as these have a tendency to go up when you look at them more closely.  Equally it may understate the cost reductions possible over decades.

 

 

Deploying CCS on fossil fuel plant is more of a priority than implementing negative emissions technologies

The potential for biomass with CCS and direct air capture of CO2 should not distract from deployment of CCS on fossil fuel plants over the next few decades.  Among other things, learning from CCS on fossil fuels will help make eventual deployment of CCS on biomass cheaper and more effective.

There appears to be increasing likelihood that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will grow to exceed levels consistent with the target specified in the recent UNFCCC Paris agreement of limiting temperature rises to “well below” two degrees.  Such an outcome would require CO2 to be removed from the atmosphere faster than natural sinks allow, in order to restore concentrations to safe levels.  Near zero net emissions in the latter part of this century will also be needed to stabilise concentrations.

Many models of future emissions pathways now show negative emissions technologies (technologies that result in a net decrease in CO2 in the atmosphere) needing to play a major role for in meeting climate goals. They have the potential to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the event of “overshoot” of target atmospheric concentrations, and to balance remaining emissions from sectors where abatement is difficult with a view to achieving net total emissions of close to zero.  But the application of such technologies should not be considered in isolation.

Bio Energy with CCS (BECCS)

Bio energy with CCS (BECCS ) is the most widely discussed approach to negative emissions.  BECCS is not a single technology but a combination of two major types of CO2 removal.  Bioenergy from burning biomass to generate electricity or heat emits a substantial amount of CO2  on combustion – around as much as a coal plant.  However much of this can be captured using CCS.  More carbon dioxide is reabsorbed over time by the regrowth of the plants, trees – or perhaps algae – that have been harvested to produce the bioenergy.  Together, the capture of the CO2 from the flue gas and the subsequent absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere by regrowth of biomass can lead to net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, although this takes time.  (The net amount of CO2, that is emitted on a lifecycle basis from burning biomass without CCS depends on the type of biomass and is subject to considerable variation and uncertainty – a controversial topic that would need another post to review.)

However at an energy system level, where the CO2 is captured – biomass plant or fossil fuel plant – is less relevant than the total amount that’s captured.  Broadly speaking, if there is a biomass plant and fossil fuel plant both running unabated the same benefit can be achieved by capturing a tonne of CO2 from either.

Indeed there may be advantages to putting CCS on a conventional plant rather than biomass plant.  It may be technically more tractable.  Furthermore, CCS require a lot of energy to capture the CO2 and then to compress and pump it for permanent storage.  Biomass is likely to be supply constrained (again, this is an issue that requires a post in itself), so using biomass rather than fossil fuels to provide this energy may limit other applications.  Only when there are no fossil fuel plants from which to capture CO2 does biomass plant become unambiguously a priority for CCS.  This is clearly some way off.

Furthermore biomass with CCS for electricity generation may not be the best use of bioenergy.  Converting sunlight to bioenergy then turning that into electricity is a very inefficient process.  Typically only 1-2% of the sunlight falling on an area of cropland ends up as useful chemical energy in the form of biofuels.  There are various reasons for this, not least of which is that photosynthesis is a highly inefficient process.  Burning biomass to make electricity adds a further layer of inefficiency, with only perhaps a third or less of the energy in the biomass turned into electricity.  Sunlight therefore gets converted to electricity with an efficiency of perhaps 0.5%.  This compares with around 15- 20% for solar cells, implying that scarce land is often likely to be best used for solar PV.  (The calculation is closer if solar PV is used to create storable energy e.g. in the form of hydrogen).   For similar reasons the use of biofuels rather than electricity in transport is inefficient, in part because internal combustion engines are less efficient than electric motors.

Limited available biomass may be better used for those applications where it is the only available lower carbon energy source, notably in aviation and (likely) heavy trucks, or for other applications such as district heating with CCS, where the ability to store energy seasonally is especially valuable.

At the very least, detailed system modelling will be required to determine the optimal use of biomass.  Suggesting that BECCS should have a major role to play simply because in isolation it has negative emissions may lead to suboptimal choices.

Direct Air Capture (DAC)

Direct Air Capture (DAC), where carbon dioxide is chemically absorbed from the atmosphere and permanently sequestered, can also reduce the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere.  However the typical concentration of CO2 in a flue gas of a power plant or industrial plant is several percent, about a hundred times as great as the concentration of 0.04% (400 ppm) found in the atmosphere.  This makes the capture much easier.  Furthermore, millions of tonnes can be captured and piped from a single compact site using CCS, generating economies of scale on transport and storage.  In contrast DAC technology tends to be more diffuse.  These considerations imply that CCS from power plants and industrial facilities is always likely to be preferable to direct air capture until almost all the opportunities for CCS have been implemented, which again is a very long way off.

Uncertainties and optionality

There are many uncertainties around negative emissions technologies, including the availability of biomass, cost, and the feasibility of reducing emissions in other sectors.  For these reasons developing optionality remains valuable, and research to continue to develop these options, including early trial deployment, is needed, as others have argued[i].

One of the best ways of developing optionality is to deploy CCS at scale on fossil fuel plants.  This will reduce the costs and enable the development of improved technologies through learning on projects.  It will also help build infrastructure which can in turn benefit  BECCS.  This needs to run in parallel with ensuring that the lifecycle emissions from the bioenergy production chain are reduced and biodiversity is safeguarded.

Negative emissions technologies may well have a role to play in the latter part of the century.  But they seem likely to make more sense when the economy is already largely decarbonised.  In the meantime deployment of CCS, whether on industrial facilities or power plants, needs to be a much greater priority.

Adam Whitmore – 21st March 2016

[i] Investing in negative emissions, Guy Lomax,  Timothy M. Lenton,  Adepeju Adeosun and Mark Workman, Nature Climate Change 5, 498–500 (2015)  http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v5/n6/full/nclimate2627.html?WT.ec_id=NCLIMATE-201506