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Hydrogen Heating Plans Need to be More Ambitious, Says Expert

Hydrogen heating will be tested in a trial involving Baxi Heating's 100% hydrogen boiler in Gateshead
(Image credit: Baxi Heating)

The project director of a hydrogen heating project says the UK needs to be more ambitious in replacing gas with hydrogen in domestic heating.

Tim Harwood, who is running the H21 pilot project near Carlisle, says the gas grid could be ready to switch to hydrogen within two years, but has called for greater hydrogen capacity to be made available.

The government has committed to developing 5GW of production capacity for the first town town heated entirely by hydrogen by 2030, and is expected to publish its hydrogen strategy this spring.

Ahead of the publication, Harwood said: “We should be more ambitious. We’ll be ready to roll this out to multiple towns by the end of the decade.”

H21 is a series of a test projects that aim to prove the gas grid can be converted to hydrogen, which are being conducted on a wild hillside at a Royal Air Force base. 

It is one of several hydrogen trials underway as the decarbonisation race heats up, with heat pumps another advancing technology likely to play a key role in heating our homes, especially ahead of the ban of gas boilers in new homes in 2025.

Why is Hydrogen Heating Being Developed?

Currently around 85% of homes are heated with polluting natural gas, and hydrogen technology is considered by experts to play a key role in the future of smart heating because the main by-product of burning hydrogen gas is water. 

While renewable tech such as air source heat pumps, which run off electricity, will be vital in heating our homes, it's recognised that the technology is not suitable for all homes. 

Hydrogen represents a way of greening up the gas grid, and hydrogen boilers could be a viable low-carbon heating system in the future. 

Hydrogen heating has government support too. The 10-point plan published in November, as part of the government’s Green Industrial Revolution, pledged to develop the first town powered entirely by hydrogen by 2030, with milestone targets along the way: starting with a hydrogen neighbourhood in 2023, moving to a hydrogen village by 2025. 

Mr Johnson also announced up to £500m in November to help progress hydrogen heating, including trialing homes using hydrogen for heating and cooking. Of this, £240m will go into new hydrogen production facilities. 

Hydrogen heating

Replacing your gas boiler with a hydrogen boiler could have a major impact for homeowners (Image credit: Getty Images)

A 'Ready-to-go' Solution

One of the key benefits in swapping to hydrogen from gas is that it will involve very little disruption to homeowners.

Hydrogen boilers like the ones developed by Baxi Heating and Worcester Bosch can run on 100% hydrogen as well as natural gas. This means that transferring to hydrogen gas in the future will be easy for those with a hydrogen-ready boiler because it can convert to hydrogen without the need for an entirely new heating system.

Plus, hydrogen-ready boilers such as Viessmann's new Vitodens 100-W gas condensing boiler - which is capable of running with a hydrogen mix of up to 20% - can not only help homeowners reduce their energy bills and cut carbon emissions, but enable a smooth transition to hydrogen in the event that hydrogen is introduced  to the UK gas grid in the near future.

But Hydrogen Heating Faces Obstacles

One of the main criticisms of hydrogen heating is that it can be costly to produce, which could limit its availability. This is because it relies on either using renewable energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen (the process used to make 'green hydrogen'), or using carbon capture technology to prevent emissions being released by splitting fossil fuel gas into 'blue hydrogen'.

(MORE: Heat pumps half the cost of hydrogen boilers)

In January, a coalition of 33 business and civil society groups in January urged the European Commission to prioritise renewables and energy efficiency over hydrogen to help decarbonise buildings.

And in March, Professor Shah, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London, gave evidence to MPs and spoke about the possible role of hydrogen in residential heating, noting this is more likely to come in the form of hybrid systems which include heat pumps. 

Richard Lowes, a research fellow at the University of Exeter, adds: “The biggest question is where does the hydrogen come from. Because it’s much more energy-intensive to produce than electricity so systemically it looks quite poor, because it’s just so inefficient.”

Hydrogen heating

Baxi Heating's hydrogen boiler is being trialled at the ‘HyStreet’ test site in Northumberland (Image credit: Baxi)

Which Trials are Ongoing?

Northumberland

In November, hydrogen boilers from Baxi Heating and Worcester Bosch were installed into the first UK homes to demonstrate the technology’s efficiency.

The innovative prototypes will be trialed at The ‘HyStreet’ test site in Northumberland, which consist of specially built demonstration houses. More than 200 tests will now be completed to research and prove the safety and efficacy of converting homes and gas networks to hydrogen.

The current trials in Northumberland will demonstrate how existing gas networks can be repurposed to safely carry 100% hydrogen.

Low Thornley, Gateshead

The UK's first homes to be powered entirely by hydrogen boilers - developed by Baxi Heating and Worcester Bosch - will be built in Gateshead by April.

The boilers, hobs, cookers and fires will all run on hydrogen rather than fossil fuel gas, and release no carbon emissions. The government says the two homes in Low Thornley will showcase how the fuel can be used to replace natural gas. 

The government-funded project is being coordinated by Northern Gas Network and Cadent. The homes will run on hydrogen tanks provided on site.

Once built, members of the public will be able to step inside and see how the appliances compare with ones running on natural gas.

Hydrogen heating

Worcester Bosch's hydrogen boiler prototype (Image credit: Worcester Bosch)

Fife, Scotland

Fas network operator SGN submitted plans earlier this year for H100, the world’s first domestic hydrogen heating grid. The first homes in the world to use green hydrogen through a local gas grid will move ahead in Fife, Scotland by the end of next year, subject to planning permission.

Keele University

Last year, in the first HyDeploy pilot trial, 20% of hydrogen was injected and blended into Keele University's existing private gas network, which supplies 30 faculty buildings and 100 domestic properties.

Cumbria

Three purpose-built houses at the RAF Spadeadam base in Cumbria are being used to test out 100% hydrogen homes.

Carlisle

The aforementioned H21 pilot project is underway near Carlisle to assess whether the gas grid can be converted to hydrogen.

Winlaton, Gateshead

In a separate trial in Gateshead, 670 homes will be some of the first in the UK to trial natural gas blended with hydrogen. The project will begin in early 2021 and last around 10 months.

Wales

A £4.8m hydrogen hub to be set up in Wales to pilot the creation of hydrogen from renewable energy was announced in the Spring Budget.