Hydrogen power has all the makings of a clean and flexible fuel source. Consumed in a fuel cell, it’s two to three times more efficient than a gas combustion engine, and only produces electricity, water, and heat as its byproducts.
It’s long been used to send rockets into space, is becoming increasingly viable as zero-emissions energy for ground vehicles, and even has the potential to power your home. There’s just one catch — It hasn’t really caught on yet.
Though there has been some effort to transition to hydrogen-powered homes in places like the United Kingdom, the same cannot be said in the United States. Today, we’ll be taking a look at why that may be the case, and positing what changes may need to occur before hydrogen-powered homes become more mainstream.
The Challenge of Sourcing Hydrogen Power
Unfortunately, there’s no plentiful pure supply of hydrogen on Earth. Because of this, manufacturers must derive it using one of several methods:
- Steam-methane reforming: Using high temperatures to produce hydrogen from hydrocarbon fuels. Creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct.
- Electrolysis: Separating hydrogen from water using electricity.
- Solar-driven processes: Using sunlight to split hydrogen from water.
- Biological means: Using algae and microbes to produce hydrogen gas.
And herein lie some of the greatest hindrances to hydrogen power adoption:
- Generating hydrogen from methane releases CO2 (and other greenhouse gases).
- Using electrolysis requires outside electrical energy (which is cost-prohibitive).
- Solar and biological methods are in their infancy (rendering them unsuitable for large-scale production).
Making hydrogen cost-competitive and environmentally friendly will be one of the most critical steps toward widespread adoption, but even ignoring that, there are still objections to hydrogen power use due to the challenges presented by home conversions.
Next, let’s take a look at how recent innovations may help address the difficulties of converting homes to hydrogen power, and why it’s still an attractive prospect in the quest to minimize greenhouse gas emissions.
Bringing Hydrogen Power to the Home
Despite sourcing challenges, there’s still a strong argument for using hydrogen in the home and a framework for a successful transition from traditional power sources.
Evidence suggests that a combination of hydrogen and solar power could be the best pathway to a sustainably energized house that minimizes emissions. What’s more, using hydrogen to heat homes has the potential to supplant the use of natural gas boilers, a practice that is responsible for millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year.
There are already more than two million solar-powered installations in the United States, and that number is expected to increase in the coming years. Coupling solar use with hydrogen could help invigorate the adoption of both and maximize the benefits.
What does this hydrogen-fueled home of the future look like? A look at the UK’s plan to replace natural gas with hydrogen offers some glimpses into what’s feasible.
As a part of the nation’s push toward cleaner energies, companies have started experimenting with hydrogen boilers. These boilers are capable of heating homes just as well as their natural gas counterparts and make use of existing natural gas lines to lessen the challenge of conversion in older buildings.
A similar procedure might be possible with other home appliances that currently run on natural gas, and this highlights the second necessary factor that must be present for hydrogen-powered homes to catch on — a simplified means of conversion that takes advantage of existing infrastructure.
Having a means of bringing hydrogen into our homes and being able to convert major systems away from traditional sources of power is still only part of this energy equation, though. We’ve also got to examine how the perceptions and behaviors of our society must change if we are to make hydrogen-fueled homes a success.
Adopting a Hydrogen-Powered Mindset
Changing attitudes will be the final component in making successful hydrogen-powered homes a reality. In his 2009 paper, The Prospects for a Hydrogen Economy, environmental economist Paul Ekins points out that no energy policy changes or overhauls of energy infrastructure will come about without proper incentivization.
Those who profit from the current energy paradigm have considerable influence on US public policy and are likely to oppose efforts to change. A significant breakthrough — such as a substantial reduction in the costs of procuring and providing hydrogen — will be necessary to sway them into accepting any widespread movement for energy transition.
And it’s not just those with significant financial stake whose mindsets will have to change, as consumers will also need to amend their own progress-hampering attitudes.
Research shows that a significant portion of the public doubts the safety of hydrogen power, which could hinder widespread adoption. Such doubts are based on the misconception that hydrogen is so flammable and explosive that it poses a significant hazard.
In reality, hydrogen, while it is most assuredly flammable and explosive, is still safer than oil and gas energy sources. It requires higher minimum concentrations to combust, but people won’t know about details like this or feel comfortable using hydrogen to power their homes without some education on the true risks and a change in their perception.
Hydrogen power is clean, flexible, and capable when compared to oil and gas, but has yet to gain momentum as a home energy source in the United States.
This is due in part to the difficulties of clean hydrogen production, but also because of the perceived burden of converting older buildings to accept hydrogen as fuel and general opposition to hydrogen power from monied interests and the general public.
Successful adoption of hydrogen-fueled homes will require cost-efficient sourcing of the fuel itself, reliable methods for conversion to hydrogen power, and changes in attitudes so that the transition can take place unhindered.
Indiana Lee, Contributor
Indiana Lee is a professional writer who resides in the Pacific Northwest. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking with her two dogs and creating. Follow her Twitter account to learn more about her.