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Hydrogen Boilers | The Answer To Net-Zero Heating?

Model of a green house placed on faux grass

80% of the homes in the UK currently use natural gas for heating and cooking. So, convincing homeowners to switch to an alternative may take some time.

But, as natural gas is one of the most prominent creators of carbon emissions, it is time we switched to an eco-friendlier option.

Several alternatives have been proposed, and some homes are already reducing their carbon footprint. Solar panels, heat pumps and electric boilers are just some of the ways people have replaced or at least reduced gas usage to power or heat their homes.

However, we aren’t currently using these alternatives on a large scale, and many other options are still being discovered and developed. One of the most exciting alternatives is Hydrogen. 

What Do We Know So Far?Hydrogen

The most abundant element on earth, it accounts for 90% of the visible universe. (Source: Inshorts.com) With so much Hydrogen in the natural world, it could be precisely what we have been looking for.

A report led by the Institution of Engineers and Technology (IET) suggests that Hydrogen could safely replace natural gas across the UK grid. Taking over from fossil fuels, it could power the next generation of gas appliances in both a clean and efficient way. (Source:  The Guardian)

As the lead author of the IET report, Dr Robert Sansom has said: “We are now in a position to seriously consider the viability of using hydrogen in the UK’s gas grid for use by homes and businesses, which could significantly contribute to the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy sector.”

As an efficient energy source, 1kg of Hydrogen produces the same energy as 2.8kg of gasoline. And when burned, the only emission is water.

On the surface, Hydrogen seems like the perfect alternative to help us reduce carbon emissions. And with the aim being to reduce the UK’s emissions by 80% by 2050, it could be exactly what we need.

Using it as fuel on a large scale hasn’t yet been done. Because of this, we don’t yet know all of the risks involved.

“We know hydrogen produces no carbon emissions when burned but it is also important to fully investigate and understand the overall environmental impact a switch to hydrogen is likely to make.”

Reforming

Hydrogen

Hydrogen is not fuel in its first form but a way of storing energy. Therefore, it must go through gas reforming to transform it into an energy source. One of the benefits is that we can produce large volumes of fuel during this process.

A downside of this process is that it results in CO, CO2, and other greenhouse gases. Therefore, if used on a large scale, these by-products must be stored or used safely not to cancel out any environmental benefits.

Another is that it poses risks in a domestic setting as a highly flammable substance, while other alternatives do not. Before being used on a large scale, these issues would need to be addressed, and a solution for them found.

But ultimately, as using it has its risks, some professionals question whether it is worth using at all – especially when we have other options available. (Source: Popular Mechanics). For example, solar, wind, tidal, heat pumps, etc., are all viable options we can use with much less risk. 

Updating The Gas Grid

Currently, the HyDeploy project is testing out a blend of Hydrogen and natural gas in the current national grid. Working with a 20:80 mix, the project aims to phase this in by 2025. This is excellent news for homeowners and engineers alike.

A boiler installed after 1996 should run on a combination blend. As a result, most current boilers are suitable for the first phase of the hydrogen network.

The UK grid would need updating to replace the natural gas with Hydrogen entirely.

The existing iron gas mains would need replacing with hydrogen-safe polyethylene pipes within ten years. Not only this, but appliances in homes across the UK may also need replacing.

It’s been argued that this can be done affordably and at no extra cost to homeowners, as we should replace boilers every 10-15 years anyway. When the time comes, homeowners can opt for a hydrogen ready boiler over a gas-only one. The argument concludes that homes will already have suitable boilers installed when we’re prepared to switch to hydrogen energy. (Source: Climate News Network).

Cost

Currently, the government in the UK have invested £20 million into the Hydrogen Supply Programme, which includes the HyDeploy project. This investment aims to research how viable a hydrogen network would be.

There will be no extra cost to homeowners if the HyDeploy project is successful. 

Should we move to Hydrogen completely, that is where things will change. Previous estimates have said putting electric heating and hydrogen boilers in homes would cost £28 billion a year by 2050. (Source: News Scientist). As it stands, no hydrogen-ready boilers are currently available for purchase. However, Worcester Bosch and Baxi have begun working on it.

Pros

  • No carbon emissions – The only by-products are water and heat.
  • Renewable & Waste Production – We can produce Hydrogen through waste, wind, solar, tidal, wave, geothermal and biomass.
  • 20:80 Blend – Should we move to a mix of Hydrogen and natural gas, modern boilers are already suitable for use.
  • Development – Manufactures are working on developing hydrogen boilers.

Cons

  • Replacing Piping – Hydrogen-safe polyethylene pipes would need to replace the current gas pipe system.
  • Replacing Appliances – Homeowners would eventually need to replace current appliances with hydrogen-safe ones.
  • Questionable Eco Status – Do the greenhouse gases produced in the reforming process cancel out any environmental benefits?
  • Expense – Estimates have said electric boilers and hydrogen heating could cost £28 billion a year by 2050.
  • Flammable – More flammable than other fuels and harder to contain, it poses a safety risk if not stored and used correctly.
  • Lack of Current Knowledge – There is still a lot we do not know of the potential risks.

Whether Hydrogen will replace traditional gas heating in homes across the UK remains to be seen. But it’s certainly a possibility.

All data correct at time of publication.