Posted by Sponsored Post Posted on 31 March 2023

Are Gas Infrastructure Companies Polluting the Hydrogen Debate?

In December 2022, the UK government began to contemplate making it legally mandatory that all new gas boilers installed from 2026 must be hydrogen ready.


Hydrogen ready boilers while primarily based around the consumption of natural gas would have the ability to use hydrogen as a fuel. 


However, concerns have been brought up that the push for hydrogen is an effort to take away from more effective strategies, such as replacing gas boilers with low- or zero-carbon heating systems like heat pumps or electric boilers. 


Without further ado, let’s explore this question in more detail!

Hydrogen as a Heat Source: The Good and the Bad

Hydrogen acts as a zero-carbon alternative to gas or oil to power boilers. Moreover, there have even been proposals made throughout the world for hydrogen-powered cars and hydrogen-fuelled aircraft.


Sticking with heating, however, hydrogen is a highly efficient fuel source and switching to hydrogen as the primary fuel source for heating UK homes would in theory prove easier than switching to zero-carbon alternatives such as heat pumps.


With that said, hydrogen is expensive to produce and since it is in the testing phase, it’s yet to be proven whether hydrogen-powered boilers could work en masse. Beyond that, hydrogen is difficult to store with no infrastructure in place to provide hydrogen via the national grid. This fuel source is also very flammable and volatile.


Another concern with regards to hydrogen ready boilers is that due to pricing and the current lack of capacity for hydrogen to be supplied to boilers via the national grid such boilers would remain primarily fuelled by natural gas long into the future. And the concerns don’t end there.

Are Gas Companies Polluting the Hydrogen Debate?

Given that there already exists zero-carbon alternatives to gas and oil boilers, some climate groups argue that gas infrastructure companies are pushing hydrogen given that it could be in their long-term financial interest. 


After all, a push toward a cleaner heating future that prioritises hydrogen-ready boilers would surely prove a better scenario for gas infrastructure companies than one where electric boilers and heat pumps become the norm.


Aside from the fact that it would presumably be easier for gas infrastructure companies to continue into the future by simply changing their focus from natural gas and LPG to hydrogen, as mentioned earlier, there’s always a risk that the hydrogen component of hydrogen-ready boilers would not take off as expected. 


That also reflects a key difference between boilers that solely use hydrogen and hydrogen-ready boilers which can still be ran on natural gas.


Some climate groups, electricity companies and academics have made the point that hydrogen is not only expensive to generate but may not be suitable for many households. What’s more, while hydrogen is generally carbon-free, blue hydrogen may still produce carbon dioxide based on how it is produced.


On the other side of the hydrogen debate are boiler manufacturers and operators of the gas grid pointing out that switching UK heating to hydrogen would not be as disruptive. As you’d imagine, the debate surrounding hydrogen as a heating source has become very polarised, particularly as anxiety over the climate crisis is reaching boiling point.


In summary, while it is not possible to say whether gas infrastructure companies are consciously polluting the hydrogen debate on a widespread scale, it is not particularly imaginative to envision that they are pushing for hydrogen primarily out of their own interest. Does that mean that hydrogen is not at least part of the way forward? Of course, not but it brings into question many of the arguments raised by gas infrastructure companies in this debate and their intent.

The Renewable Alternatives to Heating the Homes of the Future

As discussed, hydrogen-ready boilers (which may still be powered primarily or at least significantly by natural gas for many years and even decades to come) are not especially popular with climate groups.


While hydrogen is generally a zero-carbon option it is not renewable and is therefore costly to generate. Even if hydrogen heating could help create a net zero world, it would not offer the same financial and sustainability benefits that renewable heating systems could in the long run.


Popular renewable alternatives to heating the homes of tomorrow include:


  • Electric boilers
  • Renewable technology such as solar panels + electric boilers
  • Heat pumps
  • Biomass boilers


The government already has incentives and plans in place to push for the widespread adoption of heat pumps.


For one, there exists the Boiler Upgrade Scheme (BUS) which can see £5,000 slashed from the overall cost of having an air source heat pump installed or £6,000 in the case of a ground source heat pump.


Furthermore, the UK government has ruled that from 2025 all new build properties must be constructed in such a way that they are compatible with a heat pump installation. This is ultimately part of the UK’s goal to achieve net zero by 2050.


There are also calls for the UK government to invest further into hybrid heating systems (e.g., one that uses a heat pump and boiler to meet a property’s heating demands). 


Of course, there is a risk that hybrid heating systems will face similar criticisms as hydrogen, albeit the key difference is that a hybrid system would involve a fully zero-carbon alternative. This would therefore establish the infrastructure needed for a property to switch to a 100% renewable tech system such as a heat pump over time.


Aside from heat pump technology, households of the future may increasingly make use of electric boilers. If these boilers are powered via clean energy such as that provided from a green energy company, then their energy could still be supplied through the national grid without polluting the environment.


Today, there already exists a range of zero-carbon electricity providers such as Ecotricity, Good Energy and Octopus Energy. 


Moreover, households could not only help save the planet but reduce or even eliminate their heating bills in the future by combining an on-site renewable energy source with an electric boiler. For example, if solar panels become even more efficient in the future, a relatively small solar system may suffice to meet a household’s needs with the use of an electric boiler.


In addition, by selling renewable energy back to the grid a property would even have the ability to make a profit from a solar array as opposed to only reducing their heating bill (or eliminating it potentially).

Is Hydrogen the Way Forward?


As the previous section makes clear there are many alternatives to hydrogen-ready boilers that would not only help push UK domestic heating infrastructure firmly and irrevocably in a green direction but could offer a range of sustainability and financial benefits.


However, hydrogen should not be ruled out yet. For the same reasons that there are proponents of hybrid heating systems as a more practical step toward a net zero future (at least in the short term), there are many who argue that achieving heat pumps and electric boilers en masse is not realistic, at least not right away.


It’s fair to say that hydrogen-ready boilers or even solely hydrogen boilers should not garner over emphasis as a solution to the climate crisis, though they should arguably not be ruled out either. Of course, with a nuanced perspective this can be true with scepticism over the intent of gas infrastructure companies remaining.


All in all, whether or not you think that gas companies are intentionally polluting the hydrogen debate is a matter of personal opinion. Either way, on the one hand hydrogen does have potential if sufficient investment is put in place but it is probably not among the best ways to achieve net zero either.


Hydrogen-ready or 100% hydrogen boilers may prove a common fixture in the UK homes of 2050, but if we are going to have a shot at achieving net zero by around mid-century, surely heat pumps and electric boilers must play a major role with natural gas, LPG and oil boilers being made largely a thing of the past.

From our advertisers