Smart electrification supported by improvements in energy efficiency will be the cheapest way to decarbonise heat across Europe, a new study from the European Climate Foundation has found.

It says the use of hydrogen should be limited to providing seasonal energy storage and meeting peak power demand, even in countries with colder climates such as the UK.

The analysis, conducted by Element Energy and Cambridge Econometrics, explored six different scenarios for creating a zero-carbon energy system across Europe by 2050. The results were extrapolated from modelling of six archetype countries, with Germany being the most analogous to the UK due to its high winds and significant existing gas infrastructure.

In half of the scenarios heating is mostly electrified (“High Electrification”), whilst in the other three electrification is more limited and low-carbon gases such as hydrogen meet a substantial proportion of demand (“High Molecules”).

Household spending on energy is higher in all but one of the scenarios. It is greatest in the High Molecules scenarios, which would add between €165 and €214 billion to annual costs across Europe in 2050. The change in spending is smaller in the High Electrification scenarios, with one seeing a €23 billion reduction in annual costs by the middle of the century when compared to a continuation of the current policies.

In the central High Molecules scenario investment in new infrastructure across the six archetype countries is 36 per cent greater than in the central High Electrification scenario. The 22 per cent reduction in spending on new electricity infrastructure is more than offset by a 248 per cent increase in spending on new gas infrastructure.

Impact of scenarios on annual household spending in 2050

Source: Element Energy and Cambridge Econometrics

Commenting on the findings, the chief executive of the European Climate Foundation, Laurence Tubiana, said: “The debate is no longer about whether Europe can be climate neutral by 2050 but about how we get there. It is time to make clear choices towards fossil-free energy systems in Europe.

Lisa Fischer, senior policy adviser at the think tank E3g, said: “The EU can now confidently move from scenarios to choices towards a zero-carbon energy system. This is indispensable for a well-managed and just transition and the agenda is clear: Protecting consumers by prioritising investments in efficiency and active demand and avoiding investments in unabated fossil infrastructure.

“Build investor confidence through an unambiguous renewables and smart electrification agenda reflected in an updated assessment of EU infrastructure needs. Strengthen the EU’s competitiveness by supporting innovative, climate-neutral technologies for solving continuing challenges like seasonal storage.”

Annual energy costs in Germany by 2050

Source: Element Energy and Cambridge Econometrics

In November, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommended the adoption of hybrid heating systems combining electric heat pumps and hydrogen boilers as the best way to decarbonise heat in the UK.

Under this model, the heat pumps would meet “baseload” demand throughout most of the year, whilst the hydrogen boilers would step in to meet peak demand on the coldest winter days.

The CCC said low-carbon hydrogen cannot be produced in large enough quantities to completely replace natural gas and that full electrification is not feasible due to the huge amounts of backup generation that would be needed during periods of high demand.