Hydrogen­ – a credible future in home heating?

It looks like the writing is on the wall for natural gas boilers following the prime minister’s announced intention to reduce emissions by 68% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. Such an ambitious target cannot be tackled with heat pumps alone, so how to plug the gap?

Some 300 homes in Fife will be fitted with free hydrogen boilers, heaters and cooking appliances as part of a four-year trial into the practicalities of zero carbon hydrogen as a plausible option for home fuel and heating.

The Ofgem-backed experiment, was awarded an £18m innovation grant by the regulator, along with a further £6.9m from the Scottish government. This experiment comes hot on the heels of the Baxi and Worcester Bosch HyStreet demonstration but is vastly more ambitious.

As one of the pioneers of the hydrogen boiler, Worcester Bosch is also involved in the Fife experiment. Martyn Bridges, director of technical communication and product management at Worcester Bosch commented:
“The Fife trial is just one of many underway or planned in the UK. They prove that hydrogen gas has great potential as a zero-carbon alternative to natural gas for heating and hot water in the UK and beyond. These initial tests are incredibly encouraging and will hopefully give key decision makers confidence to deploy hydrogen gas as a fuel for the future.”

The government has kept its options open with home heating, stating, in point 7 of the 10-point plan, that:
“The choice [is open] as to whether we ultimately pursue hydrogen heating, an electrified heating system, or a mixture of both, whilst we continue to pilot the options.”

Far from a winner takes all scenario, many industry figureheads see the best potential in a collaborative effort. Madeline Ojakovoh, a senior consultant at Element Energy, who specialises in analysis of low carbon energy, offered REI her take on the potential for hydrogen n the sector:
“I definitely see a strong role for hydrogen in the future heating system. By some projections, heating could be the main role of hydrogen. Looking at the challenges we face if we do not build hydrogen into the mix for heating, and instead choose to pursue a full electrification scenario, the UK would need to spend billions to move over from our current reliance on gas, putting a massive strain on the electricity grid, and removing the benefits of greater flexibility, energy security, and storage which hydrogen offers.”

Despite his vested interest in hydrogen, it’s a viewpoint Martyn also shares:
“We see hydrogen boilers working alongside heat pumps, particularly in a hybrid system, as one of the best ways to decarbonise the heating and hot water industry in the UK.”

Critics of hydrogen for home heating point to several issues such as ‘hydrogen embrittlement’ (whereby the gas can weaken metal and polyurethane pipes), the danger of leaks due to the small molecular size, carbon capture requirements, poor energy density compared to gas and the overlooked role of biofuels.

However, all technologies have their drawbacks and hurdles to overcome and, as Madeline neatly summarised:
“Overall, it is certainly not a dead-end for hydrogen heating, it may just take a few years longer than other technologies to get there.”

How do you see the future balance of home heating in the UK? Email us your thoughts.