Shopping for a hydrogen fuelled household

Around 700 households in Adelaide are now getting  5 per cent hydrogen in their gas cookers and hot water systems, courtesy of the local distribution network owner, the Australian Gas Infrastructure Group (AGIG). AGIG wants to go one better: offering 100 per cent hydrogen to new Adelaide housing estates by 2025. It seems, on the face of it, a brave call. Is this a moon shot promise, or the new normal?

To understand the announcement it is useful to break it down into two parts: the motivation and the technology. Why pure hydrogen, why new suburbs? Why 2025? Is it possible?

The gas industry has been under growing pressure from activists over the past decade, portrayed as the little sibling to coal, and demonised as such. It’s true natural gas is a fossil fuel that produces greenhouse gases, albeit around half of that produced by coal to make the same amount of electricity. Gas is also methane, which if released directly in the atmosphere is around 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

If the gas pipelines belonging to gas network owners are going to have any value in the future, then they need to decarbonise the fuel carried inside them. There are currently two options: bio-methane, which is methane made from organics and is carbon neutral, hydrogen made from renewables, or a blend of the two.

AGIG has just been given a series of government handouts to build green hydrogen electrolysers and then inject the clean fuel at low ratios into their gas networks. Low ratios is important because hydrogen has different physical combustion properties than methane, so is technically limited in how much it can co-fuel conventional gas equipment. It is also makes some metals quite brittle at higher concentrations, and there are metals inside the working bits of domestic gas pipes and appliances.

Gas is currently used in three main ways in households: to heat water, to cook with and to heat air in winter. All of these can be replaced by electricity, which is the preferred option of many activists. Most existing households aren’t about to rip these appliances out. Indeed, most often households still replace hot water with like for like.

The real battle is in new suburbs, where there is political pressure to not provide gas networks at all, but simply require all new households to install electric-only appliances. To resist this, gas networks have to provide a compelling case that gas networks are worth it as they can be net zero too. The promise of trialling a 100 per cent hydrogen system by 2025 is all about this.

Talking 100 per cent hydrogen by 2025 makes a great media grab, but might be quite tricky to deliver. Pure hydrogen networks will require pure hydrogen appliances, and they are currently pretty scarce at any local homemakers centre. A company called the Pure Energy Centre offers a hydrogen cooker in the UK, although they don’t say how much it costs or show what it looks like.

An Italian company called Giacomini has produced a hydrogen fuelled boiler that can be used to heat domestic dwellings.  It too appears heavily down the prototype end of the market and sticker prices are not available, which is a clue that they’re pretty expensive. It might be possible to adapt hydrogen boilers for water heating, but this feature doesn’t seem to be occupying the very infant hydrogen appliance market at the moment.

Given 2025 is only four years away, this new category of appliances will need to evolve and scale quite significantly to meet the promise of a trial hydrogen suburb in Adelaide. There just isn’t a market for these sorts of products. And the deeper question is, it is worth the bother? Is there any measurable consumer benefit in having hydrogen do these jobs in the future?