The Future of Heating: Hydrogen or Heat Pumps?

As we enter the new decade, the hot topic on the lips of heating industry professionals is hydrogen. David Holmes, founder of the boiler repair comparison site, Boiler Guide, considers whether hydrogen might be a natural successor to gas when it comes to domestic heat.  

In the search for a low-carbon alternative to natural gas – which would help to reduce the impact home heating has on the environment – the momentum behind hydrogen is growing.

Worcester and Baxi have both unveiled hydrogen-ready boilers and, as part of a trial by HyDeploy, hydrogen has been blended into the gas being supplied to homes in the Staffordshire village of Keele.

Is hydrogen the future of heating?
Hydrogen certainly looks to be the best alternative to natural gas. It would allow us to continue making use of the gas network infrastructure and even contains more energy (there’s roughly the same amount of energy in 1kg of hydrogen as 2.8kg of gasoline).

Where hydrogen falls down is in the production phase. Not only is it currently expensive to produce hydrogen, the process can also emit carbon. To combat this, the production methods of electrolysis and Steam Methane Reforming (STR) would need to be made carbon neutral.

Electrolysis, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity, would need to be powered by renewable electricity generated by wind and solar farms. Meanwhile, the carbon released through STR, which involves steam and a catalyst heating the methane found in natural gas, would need to be captured.

However hydrogen is being generated the boiler technology is ready and waiting. While it might be some years until they’re being installed in homes up and down the country, Baxi have trials planned across the UK in 2020 and are even using them in their Preston offices.

While hydrogen could be the solution for homes connected to the gas network (around 8 in 10 homes), new-builds from 2025 – which will be built without gas boilers – and off-grid properties also need low-carbon solutions.

It’s possible that new-builds could be fitted with ‘green’ boiler technology but the growing consensus is that heat pumps, powered by electricity, will be installed.

Is there hope for the heat pump?
Heat pumps operate at a lower temperature than boilers, making them a great match for new-builds as efficiency standards should ensure that they’re well insulated. The insulation of many existing homes, on the other hand, would need to be improved for homeowners to really feel the benefit of a heat pump. This could be a problem for some off-grid homes. 

The Clean Growth Plan aims to phase out the installation of high carbon fossil fuel heating in off-grid properties during the 2020s – an important step to reduce carbon emissions but not without its challenges.

The first hurdle is the initial cost. Heat pumps are considerably more expensive than boilers and, while they’re highly efficient and may help to reduce energy bills, not many people will be convinced to part with several thousands of pounds. Especially when the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a government scheme designed to encourage homeowners to have a renewable heating system installed, is set to come to an end in March 2021 with no incentive currently lined up for after its closure.

Wider incentives is one of the recommendations listed by the Heat Pump Association (HPA) to the new government, along with increased standards and legislations if we’re to see more homeowners turn to renewable technology.

The government is set to publish a heat roadmap later this year which is expected to provide a clearer idea of how new-builds will be heated from 2025 onwards.

Hydrogen or heat pumps?
It’s clear that hydrogen and heat pumps are both set to have a big decade ahead of them but only time will tell if that’s in terms of policies being rolled out or real changes being made to the way we heat our homes. If it’s the latter, hydrogen looks to have the upper hand. After all, the infrastructure is already in place.

What next for the future of heating?
Expect the discussion around ‘green’ heating systems to continue gathering momentum during this decade. Especially in terms of hydrogen, a fuel that the industry will continue to trial over the next few years but only time will tell whether it’s being used to heat our homes at the start of the next decade.

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