Don’t be binary on hydrogen

Hydrogen should be part of the solution to decarbonise heating in the UK, according to Hydrogen UK’s Clare Jackson, who says we have no time to lose

Recent media reports have raised a number of objections to hydrogen’s use as an energy source for domestic heating. They claim that it’s more dangerous than natural gas, expensive, inefficient, not really low carbon and that hydrogen production won’t be able to keep up with demand. Let’s examine those accusations in turn.

Like anything intended for use in our homes, hydrogen boilers undergo rigorous safety checks before becoming commercially available. No system is entirely risk-free and moving towards full electrification brings both safety and infrastructure development challenges.

The many workstreams completed and ongoing under the H21 safety trials demonstrate that the technologies and processes are safe and can represent cost efficient decarbonisation options. The companies developing hydrogen boilers have committed to ensuring that they will cost the same as natural gas boilers.

Hydrogen itself is currently expensive because it’s in the early stages of its development. Technologies such as renewables and electric vehicles have benefited from government support to reduce costs; hydrogen needs similar backing to increase its financial viability. Once this support is in place, the industry will be able to deliver affordable, low-carbon hydrogen to homes, with some estimates predicting hydrogen reaching cost parity with natural gas by 2030.

In terms of efficiency, hydrogen is an effective way of avoiding curtailment, which is a 100% efficiency loss. Constraint costs came to £1.2 billion in 2021 and are rising per unit of electricity curtailed. At the same time, the cost of transporting a MWh of hydrogen per 1,000 miles is eight times cheaper than that of electricity. A balanced approach combining electrification and hydrogen would mitigate demand peaks and could deliver system savings of up to £6.2 billion compared to pure electrification.

There are many ways to produce hydrogen, some using natural gas. The UK is introducing a low-carbon hydrogen standard, which means that all hydrogen used to heat homes will be genuinely low-carbon. Hydrogen UK has calculated that the ever-growing pipeline of hydrogen production projects in the UK totals more than 19.4GW of capacity. Longer term, up to 38 TWh of hydrogen could be available in the UK each year, enough to heat 3.2 million homes or all on-grid homes with a hybrid heat pump system.

We need to move away from either/or conversations about hydrogen and heat pumps or district heating. Consumers don’t care and we’ll need both options if we are to fully decarbonise domestic heating needs. Hydrogen has a key role to play alongside electrification and heat networks in decarbonising domestic heat and there are many advantages to implementing a mixed approach.

A mixed approach
The suitability of various low-carbon heating solutions depends on the household and it’s important that consumers are given a choice. A total of 85% of UK homes are heated by natural gas boilers. Hydrogen boilers are a like-for-like replacement.

Similarly, there are 130,000 heating engineers registered with Gas Safe, who install and maintain the gas boiler systems deployed in homes. Transitioning this workforce over to hydrogen will be relatively simple to implement.

Hydrogen boilers are the same size and shape as natural gas boilers, and able to operate using the same flow temperatures. This allows energy efficiency upgrades to be decoupled from the heating system change, reducing disruption associated with a heating system change and avoiding the two financial outlays occurring simultaneously.

If hydrogen-ready boilers are installed, conversion from natural gas to hydrogen needs just a 30-minute visit from an installer to change three components, which costs around £100. The widespread rollout of hydrogen within the heat sector would create new jobs and safeguard existing ones.

Global opportunity
The UK is well positioned to be a global leader in the development of hydrogen boilers, having already manufactured and demonstrated hydrogen-ready boilers. With a strong existing installer base, and manufacturing and assembly lines in place, the UK could be a pioneer on the world stage.

Hydrogen UK firmly believes that we will need a range of solutions to decarbonise heat for homes, including heat pumps, hydrogen and district heating. It’s important that we leave all options on the table so that people can access a range of solutions to decarbonise heat for homes, including heat pumps, hydrogen and district heating.