Domestic central heating boiler control panel

New boilers could be required to be ‘hydrogen-ready’ from 2026

Image credit: Stuart Key/Dreamstime

The UK government is consulting on new plans to mandate that all new boilers can generate heat from hydrogen instead of gas from 2026.

The proposal is part of a set of initiatives aimed at helping households save on energy bills by cutting the use of expensive fossil fuels.

The consultation was published alongside a £25m funding pledge to speed up the deployment of technology that makes hydrogen using bioenergy – such as burning wood pellets – and with the carbon dioxide that is generated captured and permanently stored.

The government said the technology would be carbon-negative, as the plants used for energy would absorb carbon as they grow, and then it would be permanently removed from the atmosphere through storage.

In addition to the requirement to make all new boilers 'hydrogen-ready', the consultation also proposes setting higher efficiency standards for new gas boilers. 

The initiative comes alongside a £102m investment on nuclear and hydrogen energy announced on Tuesday, which aims to help the UK develop a “thriving” low-carbon hydrogen sector as part of its push to cut emissions to zero overall by 2050 to curb dangerous climate change.

As part of this effort, the government is set to invest £60m in kickstarting the next phase of research into a cutting-edge type of nuclear reactor. These are said to be smaller than conventional power stations, more flexible, and could be built at a fraction of the cost.

As the UK faces a looming energy crisis, the topic of heating homes is becoming an increasing concern for most of the population. Currently, around 50 per cent of global final energy use in the world today is used for heating and cooling. In the UK nearly nine in 10 households use natural gas to heat their homes.

Hydrogen generates no pollution when used as a fuel, and can be generated using renewable electricity or from natural gas – although that produces carbon emissions in the process.

The element has long been presented as a clean energy solution to cut emissions in difficult-to-treat sectors such as heavy goods transport and industrial processes, while boilers fuelled by hydrogen are also being touted as a replacement for home heating systems currently run on natural gas.

“Mandating hydrogen-ready boilers is an important step towards decarbonising homes," said Mike Foster, chief executive of Energy and Utilities Alliance and the Heating and Hotwater Industry Council.

“The government are absolutely right to support this no-regrets option.”

However, bioenergy can also be controversial, as activists and researchers have warned it leads to deforestation or crops grown on land that could otherwise be used for food. At the moment, the vast majority of hydrogen – 95 per cent – is produced by splitting natural gas into hydrogen and carbon, a process which is more polluting than just using methane gas. 

Moreover, a recent review of more than two dozen independent studies found hydrogen will not have a major role in the future of heating homes across Britain. According to the researcher's findings, hydrogen was found to be less economic, less efficient, more resource intensive and has a bigger environmental impact than many alternatives.

These include heat pumps, using solar thermal panels which heat water directly in the sunlight, and district heating – where whole blocks or neighbourhoods are supplied through the same hot water system.

In addition, a report by the UK Energy Research Centre’s (UKERC) has also criticised the "critical gap" in the government's efforts to help homes save energy, describing it as a “hugely wasted opportunity”. 

It stressed that the UK's response to the energy crisis has focused almost entirely on supplies such as boosting new renewables – which will not deliver savings straightaway – and subsidies, the report said.

“Energy efficiency policies, including information campaigns, have been the critical gap," the report said. “This has been true for a decade, but is particularly surprising now, given that high prices make payback from energy efficiency investments even easier to realise.”

UKERC welcomed the government’s recent announcement of a public awareness campaign but said action is needed on energy efficiency to improve the warmth of leaky buildings and cut costs. It reiterated the need to invest in installing simple measures such as draught-proofing and insulation are low cost and would help vulnerable customers stay warm. 

Despite the UK government’s claims, this is not the first time that the scientific community has warned against the use of hydrogen for heating homes. Earlier this week, a separate study by the analyst company Cornwall Insight concluded that hydrogen would be close to twice as expensive for home heating as using gas alone.

In addition, a report from Imperial College London’s Energy Futures Lab, released in January this year, said it was likely that using hydrogen as an energy source in the gas grid would only be workable from the early to mid-2030s, at the earliest. 

However, the new consultation has been celebrated by the hydrogen lobby, which last month called on the government to do more to support the rapidly growing industry, including making it mandatory for all new boilers to support 100 per cent hydrogen by 2026.

The call for action follows the European Commission’s September announcement of a €3bn hydrogen bank, designed to help build a future market for the fuel.

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