Published by React News 9 January 2023
The UK awaits its first hydrogen village, but consumers could take to heat pumps
Is heating our homes with hydrogen the future? 2023 could be the year we
finally learn the answer.
It’s broadly agreed that hydrogen will be instrumental in making the UK’s
industrial sector greener, but the fuel’s potential in homes is more contested.
Last month, for example, MPs in the parliamentary science and technology
committee warned that any future use of hydrogen in cutting emissions will be
“limited rather than universal”, with practical and financial questions still at play.
However, the government is keeping an open mind. Not only is it weighing up a
licence for hydrogen-ready boilers from 2026, it will also begin rolling out trials
of hydrogen in homes. Two gas distributors, Cadent and NGN, are competing to
run the country’s first hydrogen village.
Ofgem will decide later this year whether Whitby, in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire,
or Redcar in Teesside, will be the one to switch over from natural gas. The
results could determine how big a role hydrogen will play in the future of home
“Hydrogen can be as safe as natural gas”
Marc Clarke, head of consumer hydrogen at Cadent, says the company chose
Whitby as a potential hydrogen village because its gas network is easily
isolatable, hydrogen is available nearby, and it has a good spread of house
types that reflect those of the UK at large.
If Whitby is selected, the next step will be in-depth engagement with every
resident in the village. Everyone will be able to choose if they want hydrogen or
would rather have a heat pump, and Clarke promises that no-one will be
financially disadvantaged – so if hydrogen is more expensive than natural gas,
people’s bills will be subsidised. Once all the necessary kit will be procured,
pure hydrogen would flow through Whitby’s 2,000 homes from 2025.
The trial would last two years, but Cadent hasn’t yet decided on what would
happen after that: keep everyone on hydrogen or revert the houses back to
natural gas? There are pros and cons of both, Clarke says – not least that if
residents are kept on hydrogen, they may be left to shoulder the sky-high costs.
Whatever they decide, Clarke wants to make sure people are “still left with
some benefits of the programme, whether that’s extra efficiencies in the home,
whether that’s loft insulation being installed, even a [rise in] monetary value.”
In recent months opposition to the scheme from Whitby residents has been
growing, centring on concerns about the safety of the hydrogen that could flow
through their homes. It’s also unlikely residents would have been reassured by
the Netflix film Glass Onion, which contained an imaginary (and very explosive)
The key message Clarke wants to get across, though, is that Whitby residents
won’t be guinea pigs. The trial will be verified by an independent health and
safety executive before it goes ahead. “We move combustible gas from A to Z
every single day,” he says. “What we’ve proven, and what the projects that have
run till now have proved, is that you can do this with hydrogen and it can be as
safe as natural gas. The programme is not to test safety”.
“We will not escape hydrogen”
Proponents of hydrogen homes argue that we’re going to need every method of
decarbonisation we can get, even if heat pumps or heat networks end up doing
the heavy lifting in our homes.
The North West Hydrogen Alliance, an industry body, estimates that using
hydrogen for heating could cut average household emissions by 2.4 tonnes of
carbon dioxide each year, reducing residents’ carbon footprint by 35%.
Hydrogen advocates point out that the UK has one of Europe’s oldest and most
poorly insulated housing stocks, making electrification more challenging to
implement. As the electricity grid already faces challenges of capacity, using the
UK’s gas network for hydrogen heating would result in a more resilient energy
“The government has decided that by 2035 there will be no electricity generated
in the UK using hydrocarbons,” says Professor Joe Howe, chair of the North
West Hydrogen Alliance, on a gloomy winter morning. “So any electrons that will
be driving our heat pumps within houses or charging our cars by 2035,
theoretically they’re going to have to come from clean sources.
“Where are we going to get the wind on a day like today? Where are we going
to get the solar on a day like today?”
We must find an alternative source, he says. “We could either consume
hydrogen through hydrogen boilers in our households for heat and for domestic
appliances, or else we’ll be consuming electrons which are produced by
hydrogen through heat pumps. So no matter what, in terms of the domestic
environment, we will not escape hydrogen”.
Lee Fraine, head of sustainability at Rapleys, agrees that we should “explore
“You could distribute air source heat pumps to every household in the country if
you wanted to, but you wouldn’t be able to turn them on,” he says. “We don’t
have enough engineers to be able to install them, nor is the electrical
infrastructure capable of supporting them all yet.” The Climate Change
Committee estimates that meeting the net zero target across the economy will
require at least a doubling of electricity generation by 2050 from decarbonised
How green is hydrogen?
Hydrogen has its issues. It is cleaner than methane when it burns, and it can be
made from water using renewable energy – so-called “green hydrogen”.
However, over 99% of the world’s supply is currently made in a way that creates
carbon dioxide emissions. How much greener is that, then, than natural gas?
Then there is the cost and the efficiency. Heat pumps are currently more
expensive to buy than hydrogen-ready boilers in the UK, but boilers burning
green hydrogen would be much more expensive to run, requiring five times
more renewable electricity than a heat pump to produce the same amount of
Those in the electrification camp, such as Dr Jan Rosenow, director of
European programmes at the Regulatory Assistance Project, see the hydrogen
trials as an attempt by gas suppliers and distributors to hold onto their market
share as the UK moves away from natural gas.
But every domestic heating solution has its downsides and the government is
determined to pursue a variety of solutions and not to give up on hydrogen in
homes just yet.
At the moment, hydrogen boilers look likely to fill a useful net zero niche: not
every home will suit a heat pump, after all. By the end of the year we should be
able to tell if they will amount to anything more than that.