Hydrogen is the new buzzword in every industry, and real estate is no exception. Hydrogen does not emit carbon dioxide when burnt and could therefore help reduce the climate impact of buildings, which in aggregate represent one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases after industry and surface transport. To the extent that hydrogen is to become an important power source globally, it will need to enter the domestic power market. The first step appears to be the development of pilot villages.
In the UK, there are several hydrogen trials in uninhabited properties or in closed private networks. There are some uninhabited houses on a Royal Air Force base in Cumbria that are exclusively heated with hydrogen and also a private gas network at Keele University which uses 20 percent hydrogen blended with natural gas. In addition, there is a small village near Newcastle that is being used as a test case: for a period of 10 months starting in spring 2021, up to 20 percent hydrogen will be blended into the natural gas network so that more than 650 homes can be partially heated by hydrogen. It is expected that a small number of additional villages will be able to heat their homes with 100 percent hydrogen as soon as 2022, with a scale up to have a hydrogen town by 2030.
In the United States, communities are exploring ways to integrate hydrogen into their infrastructure. One project being funded by the Department of Energy’s H2@Scale initiative, H2@Scale in Texas and Beyond, is a collaborative effort between Frontier Energy and the University of Texas. H2@Scale in Texas and Beyond is focused on designing, building and operating the first dedicated renewable hydrogen network, which will integrate all aspects of the hydrogen economy into the local community. In doing so, the project will produce zero-carbon hydrogen, which will then be distributed, stored and ultimately used by a number of end-users using the H2@scale system. For example, the project will produce hydrogen on-site via electrolysis, which will then be distributed over the system’s infrastructure to power fuel cells for the Texas Advanced Computing Center at UT-Austin and to supply hydrogen for a fuel station for a fleet of fuel cell vehicles.
In Japan, Toyota has broken ground on a 175-acre “prototype city of the future,” which Toyota states will be a “fully connected ecosystem powered by hydrogen fuel cells.” The project, which Toyota is calling the “Woven City,” will be built at the site of a former vehicle manufacturing facility. The city will house roughly 2,000 people, consisting mainly of Toyota employees and their families. Toyota will provide transportation for the city’s residents via the Toyota e-Palette, which is autonomous and battery-powered. Toyota, a longtime advocate for hydrogen-powered vehicles, will use the city as a testing ground for its hydrogen-powered vehicles and infrastructure. Constructing homes is not new for Toyota—the company has built homes since 1975 and a Toyota subsidiary now reportedly constructs roughly 15,000 per year. If Toyota is successful in developing its hydrogen power infrastructure in the Woven City, we may see it apply similar technology in its real estate developments across Asia.
Japan has long been at the forefront of the hydrogen revolution and plans to make hydrogen a major power source in the country in the near future. Homeowners in Japan have been able to purchase hydrogen fuel cells for use in their residences for over a decade. These “energy farms,” or “Ene-Farms,” use hydrogen extracted from natural gas to generate electricity and heat water. Over 265,000 Ene-Farms have been installed, and Japan has the ambitious goal of installing over five million units by 2030. Larger-scale units have been installed in multifamily properties, as well. Some Japanese manufacturers have also started concentrating on pure hydrogen fuel cells for residential and commercial real estate. Panasonic, for example, expects to start the sales of its pure hydrogen fuel cells for residences in 2021. Similarly, Toshiba ESS installed a pure hydrogen fuel cell system in a new Tokyo hotel, which is expected to meet the hotel’s electricity demands and produce hot water for use in its rooms.
With further scaling, on an international basis, such hydrogen fuel cell technology could be installed in homes and offices around the world and provide an alternative to the way buildings currently consume power.
For the most part, scaling of hydrogen in the domestic power market still requires involvement of the gas network companies for distribution and a sufficient supply of green or blue hydrogen (i.e., hydrogen produced without emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere). Sponsorship of government, such as by way of large stimulus packages to industry and infrastructure, alongside private sector investment appears to remain the key to ensuring that the upstream supply and distribution networks are ready to distribute hydrogen for large-scale use in the domestic power market. However, the multiplication of test cases, pilot projects and new technologies paint a positive picture of progress in this industry.