Metro, Newton

Green Newton Co-Hosts Panel on Hydrogen Combustion Heating Systems

Panelists Cathy Kristofferson and Martyn Roetter advocated against using hydrogen combustion to heat buildings at a discussion co-hosted by Green Newton and the Newton Free Library on Thursday night.

“Only gas industry studies seem to find hydrogen viable use for heating,” Kristofferson, a representative from the Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast, said. “All scientific studies find hydrogen lacking, and all studies finding hydrogen [as] the future have come from the gas industry itself.”

Gas companies propose blending hydrogen gas with fossil gas to move toward more climate friendly energy production, despite the debatable nature of this method’s effectiveness, according to Kristofferson. 

She pointed to hydrogen’s low energy density, as researched by both Robert Howarth, a professor at Cornell University, and the California Public Utilities Commission. 

“7 percent hydrogen by energy … is 20 percent by volume, which means that blending in 20 percent with 80 percent of other methane is only 7 percent by energy content, so you need more,” Kristofferson said. “It would result in only a 7 percent emissions decrease.”

Green hydrogen can still be used as a sustainable energy resource, but proper research and development of its implementation are necessary, according to Roetter, who is a member of the Gas Transition Allies.

“I think it will be very wise and sensible to prioritize the uses of green hydrogen and to use it in those applications where it can actually provide genuine value, and hydrogen for heating is not one of them,” he said. 

Roetter’s research for the report “Hydrogen versus Electricity for Heating Buildings” also found that using green hydrogen, which is produced by an electrolyzer powered by green renewable energy, creates three times more electricity than using heat pumps does. 

“This is not a surprising result first of all, because producing green hydrogen is electricity intensitive,” he said. “And secondly, because heat pumps have the ingenious capability of delivering more thermal energy than the input in electrical energy that they require.”

Roetter said the energy plans proposed by utility companies, especially National Grid, are not consistent in decarbonization across sectors.

“You may get 7 percent reduction in buildings using green hydrogen, but you’ll get smaller reductions in other major sectors of the economy,” he said. “I don’t know what the net effect will be, but it could be even net negative over time.”

In order to more effectively work toward climate goals, Roetter emphasized the importance of cooperative efforts across the board.

“Can we please align and coordinate energy planning by gas and electric utilities, amongst each other and with the state,” said Roetter. “We looked at what National Grid is going to do over the next five years [in the gas side of the company], and it’s actually to increase the amount of methane that they are distributing.”

Kristofferson also pointed out the dangers of hydrogen combustion for energy, including hydrogen fires and respiratory diseases from nitrogen oxides. Roetter expressed similar concerns, citing his own research.

“Hydrogen is indeed a clean fuel if it’s used in a fuel cell to produce electricity, where the only byproduct is water,” he said. “But if you burn it in the air, it produces, as Kathy said, toxic nitrogen oxides.”

Newton resident Ellie Goldberg closed out the program by introducing Campaign for A Future WithOut Gas, an organization formed by Green Newton that aims to spread awareness of harmful effects from fossil fuels, and imploring the attendees to join the cause.

“We can begin to thoughtfully plan how to get rid of the worst [gas] leaks, and adapt neighborhood electrification zones, and transition with heat pumps and other opportunities,” she said. “We’re all partners in making a better Newton.”

March 20, 2023