With the UK government recently scrapping plans for a major trial to use hydrogen to heat homes, the fuel’s role in domestic heating hangs in the balance.

The so-called hydrogen town pilot was planned to heat up to 10,000 homes using hydrogen instead of fossil fuels. While a location for the trial was yet to be finalised, the government last month said it had decided “not to progress work” on the pilot until after 2026.

Although the government continues to believe low carbon hydrogen “may have a role to play in heat decarbonisation,” many believe the decision to be another nail in the coffin for hydrogen to play a major role in heating homes.

“The decision not to go ahead with a hydrogen town trial is the latest indication that hydrogen for heating will not happen in the UK,” Jan Rosenow, programme director at global energy think tank the Regulatory Assistance Project, tells Kallanish

Last December, the UK government shelved plans for a pilot to trial hydrogen for home heating in Redcar, in northern England, citing unavailability of hydrogen supply. A proposed hydrogen village trial in Whitby was also cancelled early last year after resident objection. The only remaining residential hydrogen heating trial in the UK has been delayed. The 300-home trial located in Fife, Scotland is led by gas distributor Scotia Gas Networks (SGN).

“There has been a notable shift in rhetoric from government ministers from enthusiasm about hydrogen for heating just a few years ago to realism that hydrogen will not play a significant role in heating,” Rosenow adds.

The government’s decision reflects a broader trend away from using hydrogen in home heating. A recent report by BloombergNEF (BNEF) removed hydrogen’s use in heating buildings from its forecasts. In a December 2022 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said hydrogen is likely to play a “negligible role” in space and water heating by 2030.

“Lord Callanan, government minister for energy efficiency, has now repeatedly stated that heat pumps and heat networks will be the primary means of decarbonising heat,” says Chris Galpin, policy advisor, UK energy team, at climate think tank E3G.

Hydrogen’s role in home heating

Rosenow’s meta-review of 54 independent studies on hydrogen heating released late last year suggests no major role for hydrogen in the heating of buildings. The analysis found hydrogen heating increased energy system costs by a median of 24% compared to electrification, while consumer costs increased by a median of over 86%.

“Hydrogen for heating is more expensive and less efficient compared to tried and tested technologies such as heat pumps and district heating,” he explains. “The fundamental physics determine this and it is not going to change in the future. It is highly unlikely that a large part of the UK’s gas network will ever carry hydrogen for heating.”

This is because hydrogen would require four to six times more energy input compared to direct electrical solutions such as heat pumps and district heating, the study notes.

Similarly, last October, the UK’s top infrastructure adviser, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), urged the government to rule out supporting hydrogen, as the fuel had “no public policy case” to be used to heat individual buildings. Last month, the commission reiterated its stand saying: “Electrification is the only viable option for decarbonising buildings at scale, and the solution for most homes will be heat pumps.”

“They are highly efficient, available now and are being deployed at scale in other European countries,” the NIC adds.

Moreover, “hydrogen is in scarce supply and will be a vital fuel for critical sectors such as power, transport, and low carbon steel,” notes E3G’s Galpin.

Yet, some – particularly, gas network operators and heating system manufacturers –continue to propose hydrogen as a “drop-in solution” to blend into and decarbonise buildings currently using fossil fuels.

“I believe it is inevitable that the UK’s world-leading gas networks convert to hydrogen, or the country decides to keep using natural gas with the consequential hit on carbon emissions,” Mike Foster, chief executive of the energy trade association Energy and Utilities Alliance (EUA) tells Kallanish. 

The key benefit of using hydrogen for the consumer, he argues, would be that the gas boiler and heating system use is the same as with natural gas. 

“Hydrogen-ready boilers, fitted in advance of any switchover, will cost the same as replacing a natural gas boiler,” Foster claims. “The alternatives, such as heat pumps, involve large capital outlays as well as disruption in the house.”

He notes that trials in places like Lochem, in the Netherlands, “successfully” used hydrogen to heat homes. However, Galpin argues that hydrogen heating trials are often not conclusive.

“Most hydrogen heating trials do not create the conditions for a meaningful experiment,” Galpin explains. “These trials focus on technical feasibility at a very small scale, but fail to address the fundamental challenges associated with cost and scalability.”

Typically the trials involve subsidising the majority of the cost of the hydrogen used by consumers. “As an analogy – you could trial piping champagne into people’s homes to demonstrate technical feasibility, but it wouldn’t make it a good idea to do it at scale,” he continues.

Some also emphasise consumer choice as a key factor in deciding what technology to use in home heating. James Watson, secretary general at Eurogas, notes that a technology that is most “economically viable” and has the most “public acceptance” should be selected to ensure heating is decarbonised in the “right way.” 

Watson was speaking at the FT Hydrogen Summit 2024 last week. He cited the example of Stad aan ’t Haringvliet, a small city in the Netherlands, in which over 77% of residents last year voted to switch its heating systems from natural gas to green hydrogen.

“There are lots of solar and wind facilities in the neighbourhood. It would seem strange to deny them the opportunity [to use hydrogen] if they wish to do so,” he says. “Yes, cost is a problem. But it’s not unique to the hydrogen sector.”

“We need to keep options open and be more technology-neutral,” Watson adds. “People have to have the right to be able to choose what they want. Because when you start trying to tell people there is only one silver bullet solution, this is when people become less engaged with doing what we need to do.”

Uncertainty impacting decarbonisation

Early this year, the UK’s independent government watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), warned that the ongoing uncertainty about the role of hydrogen in home heating could slow the progress of decarbonising home heating.

“Stakeholders from consumer and industry representative organisations and other government bodies have told us the government should bring forward its 2026 decisions on hydrogen, to reduce uncertainty, help strategic planning and stimulate demand for heat pumps,” the NAO wrote in its report. 

Calling the current uncertainty “deeply unhelpful,” Galpin notes that it “undermines investment in more credible home heating solutions such as heat pumps. It also raises concerns as to whether the UK will be able to ensure sufficient hydrogen is available for industrial, power and transport users.”

“The next government will need to set out how it will ramp up green hydrogen production and prioritise limited hydrogen supplies for key sectors that lack alternative options for decarbonisation,” he adds.

Echoing similar sentiments, Rosenow says: “We lost years through the polarised discussion around hydrogen for heating. It has been a distraction and led to consumer confusion and lacklustre policy reform.”

“What is needed is clarity around the role of the gas network currently expected to be made in 2026,” he concludes. “Bringing this decision forward would be a sensible step given the recent experience with hydrogen trials and the mounting evidence that hydrogen heating is a dead end.”