Boilers that run on hydrogen are likely to have only a “limited” role in replacing natural gas in heating homes in the UK, a group of MPs has concluded.
MPs on the House of Commons science and technology committee said in a report on Monday that low carbon hydrogen is “not a panacea” to cutting the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. It would be best applied to areas of the economy where there are not yet any viable green alternatives, such as heavy industry and parts of the rail network, they said.
The committee, led by Conservative MP Greg Clark, a former energy secretary, acknowledged that while hydrogen could be used in domestic heating — to replace the gas boilers used in 85 per cent of UK homes — it believes “the extent of its potential [in domestic heating] is still uncertain and looks likely to be limited rather than widespread”.
The UK government is one of 40 countries to have published strategies to produce low carbon hydrogen, which they believe could help meet climate targets given it only produces water and not carbon dioxide when it is burnt. As part of their strategy, UK ministers are backing its use in home heating trials in several parts of the country, including in Fife, Scotland.
Low carbon hydrogen can be made via the electrolysis of water using renewable power, or from natural gas with the carbon dioxide produced in the process captured and permanently stored. However, scientists point to the costs of both processes and question how much low carbon hydrogen could be produced economically.
Ministers have committed to taking a decision in 2026 on whether it is appropriate for use in domestic heating but last week published a consultation on plans to ban the installation of traditional boilers that run only on natural gas from the same year. Instead, property owners would have to install “hydrogen ready” boilers from 2026.
But the science and technology committee added in its report that it was “unconvinced” the deployment of low carbon hydrogen in domestic heating “will prove to be economically viable by the time the government has said it will determine the role of hydrogen boilers, in 2026”.
Opinion on whether low carbon hydrogen would be appropriate for use in domestic boilers has become highly polarised.
Hydrogen heating trials are being led by companies that own gas networks, such as SGN and Cadent, which could be left with stranded assets if natural gas is not replaced with a greener alternative.
Gas infrastructure companies argue a switch to hydrogen boilers would be less disruptive when compared with fitting other low carbon heating systems such as electric heat pumps, and homeowners need a choice. But their arguments have been fiercely contested by some scientists and non-profit organisations, who question the cost and suitability of using the light, odourless gas in homes.
The first live trial of hydrogen heating in about 300 homes was due to start next year in Levenmouth in Fife but the company leading the project, SGN, has pushed the start date back to the second half of 2024, blaming supply chain problems since the Covid-19 pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, SGN told the Financial Times it had achieved its minimum requirement of 270 homes agreeing to the trial.
The UK business department said hydrogen could play “an important role” in decarbonising heat in buildings but added that the government “has been clear that a decision on this will not be made until 2026, allowing for full consideration of relevant evidence”.