The UK needs a better plan to heat its homes than hydrogen

Petmal via Getty Images

The case for heating homes with hydrogen rather than natural gas appears to be dead. In the UK, hydrogen has become an important part of the debate around decarbonizing home heating. 85 percent of all homes use natural gas to heat space and water, with the oil and gas industry pushing hydrogen as something that can leverage the existing gas pipelines. And lawmakers with close ties to the industry have claimed that hydrogen is a “silver bullet” to help the UK reach its climate targets.

According to a new study from the Regulatory Assistance Project, an NGO, such claims are a big pile of old nonsense. The project ran an extensive meta-analysis of research into hydrogen technology overall, finding that the promises of easy retrofit don’t add up. It said that it wasn’t clear if the existing infrastructure was actually suitable to take hydrogen without major adaptation. That was, after all, one of the major selling points of using hydrogen over switching to heat pumps and other low-carbon methods.

It’s something that Engadget already covered in its extensive report on the UK’s home heating situation back in 2021. The suitability of infrastructure is only one part of the problem, however, since many experts also asked where all of this hydrogen was coming from. Supplying the UK with enough hydrogen to heat 85 percent of its homes, without any work to reduce demand, would require around 10 million tons of hydrogen.

In that report, Tim Lord, who was previously responsible for the UK’s decarbonization strategy, said that to generate that much hydrogen cleanly, you would need around 75 gigawatts of offshore wind. The UK Government’s most recent figures say that the country’s total installed offshore wind capacity is just 10 gigawatts. It’s hard to see the economic case for installing seven-and-a-half times the total offshore wind capacity just to generate hydrogen.

The Regulatory Assistance Project’s report also found that trying to use hydrogen for space and hot water heating is a waste of a vital material. Green hydrogen could be put to better use in agricultural processes, like making fertilizer or in heavy industry. And we’ve already seen that green hydrogen has a part to play in decarbonizing industrial transport, like shipping, and in the railways where mass-electrification isn’t viable.

In its conclusions, the report adds that greater emphasis on hydrogen will only serve to delay the take up of better technologies, like heat pumps. There’s a political dimension to this, too, with The Guardian reporting that hydrogen lobbyists were out in force at the recent Labour Party conference, and are expected to attend next week’s Conservative Party conference as well.

Another study, from the MCS Charitable Foundation in partnership with energy analysts Cornwall Insight, found that hydrogen’s cost to consumers would be nightmarish. It found that switching from natural gas to hydrogen would likely see the cost increase by between 70 to 90 percent on average. It also warned that, unlike electricity, hydrogen would be subject to the same market volatility as other fossil fuels.

As before, this study raises the question about how much we can rely upon hydrogen given that many of its key needs are still untested. For instance, steam reformation of methane would still require carbon capture and storage at a vastly larger scale than present. (Not to mention the fact that methane is a far deadlier climate gas than carbon dioxide, so any leaks or accidents would be significantly more damaging for the planet.)

Fundamentally, on this and all of the other evidence, it would seem like legislators should avoid the expensive distraction of hydrogen in favor of full-scale electrification. That, as we’ve already covered, would provide a significant, and swift, reduction in emissions (and a timely boost to the economy).