Hydrogen heating | Ongoing uncertainty over H2's future role may be harming decarbonisation: watchdog




National Audit Office suggests the UK government should bring forward a planned 2026 decision on the use of hydrogen in heating to help stimulate demand for heat pumps


The “ongoing uncertainty” over the future role of hydrogen in decarbonising domestic heating may be slowing down efforts to reduce emissions in the sector, according to a report by the UK’s independent government watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO).


In its new 51-page report about the government’s progress on decarbonising home heating, the NAO found that the Conservative administration’s decision to make no decision on the future use of hydrogen until 2026 may be one of the reasons why the roll-out of heat pumps has been far slower than expected.


As the report says, the government has previously stated that it expects heat pumps to be “the main low-carbon technology households use to heat their homes”, and that “it expects hydrogen to play a limited role”.


Nevertheless, the NAO writes: “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.”


For instance, gas engineers — who provide the vast majority of heating services to the country’s population — often advise customers to install hydrogen-ready gas boilers, arguing that heat pumps are too expensive and not suitable for many homes.


The watchdog recommends that the government should “consider whether it is possible to provide more certainty on the role of hydrogen in home heating before 2026 to help industry plan and invest”.


“This could include: making some aspects of the decision before 2026. For example, indicating that hydrogen will only be used in locations where certain conditions exist, such as proximity to hydrogen production facilities; and providing clarity on what is in scope for the 2026 decisions, for example whether it will decide on hydrogen as an option for all consumers, or if it will determine hydrogen has a role in specific areas and/or circumstances.”


The NAO adds that the government needs to recognise that “uncertainty could hamper progress and drive up costs while consumers and businesses wait for further clarity”.


The government wants to see 600,000 heat pumps installed annually in the UK — where the vast majority of homes use gas boilers — by 2028, but only 55,000 were sold in 2022, according to the Heat Pump Association.


Heat pumps are generally more expensive to buy than gas boilers, although government grants of up to £7,500 ($9,550) are available that can reduce or remove this gap, with some energy suppliers now offering heat pump systems for about £500.


The use of hydrogen to replace natural gas in domestic heating is arguably the most controversial of all the potential use cases for green H2. Using renewable energy to produce H2 that will then be burned in a hydrogen boiler would require five to six times more green electricity than using it directly in a heat pump, making it a very expensive and likely unworkable option.


At least 54 independent studies have concluded that there will be no significant role for hydrogen in heating, with zero independent studies stating an opposing view.


And with so many uncertainties about the feasibility of converting countries’ existing gas distribution networks to run on pure hydrogen — a far smaller molecule more liable to leak that contains about a third of the energy of methane by volume — the only advocates for its use are the gas distribution companies and boilermakers that would benefit from its use (alongside supportive lobby groups).


In the UK, the Conservative government seems to be less sympathetic towards hydrogen heating as it once was. Plans for a hydrogen heating village scheme — to provide data on the use of H2 in people’s homes and the conversion of local gas networks — was scrapped following local opposition; and the National Infrastructure Commission, a government executive agency, has recommended that the government should not support hydrogen for home heating.


An aggressive PR campaign by pro-gas, pro-hydrogen-heating lobby group Energy and Utilities Association (EUA) to spread misinformation about heat pumps was recently slammed by energy minister Lord Callanan, reportedly prompting the EUA to be banned from government meetings.


Indeed, the EUA’s campaign has led to a remarkable number of anti-heat pump articles in the nation’s mainly right-wing press, which may be part of the reason why the roll-out of subsidised heat pumps has not gone to plan.


Responding to a direct question about the EUA’s anti-heat pump propaganda, Lord Callan told Parliament on 6 March: “I am supportive of a sensible debate on competing technologies, but planting misleading and false stories about heat pumps to negatively affect public support for the technologies is, frankly, a disgrace, and the big boiler manufacturers that fund the EUA should be ashamed of themselves.”


All the UK’s gas distributors are also EUA members.


With the Conservative administration widely expected to lose power to the more green-minded Labour Party at the next general election, which by law has to be held by 28 January 2025, the current plans for a 2026 decision on the role of hydrogen in heating may soon be thrown out of the window.



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