Boris Johnson's mad hydrogen for homes bubble bursts

It was a gas while it lasted but 'no public policy' to replace natural gas for heating

The UK should abandon its efforts to replace gas boilers for heating homes with hydrogen systems, an independent advisory commission says.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) said there was no public policy case for hydrogen to replace natural gas for home heating, in a dramatic rebuttal of a bold government initiative promoted by Britain's former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The hydrogen for heating demonstration programme, dubbed Hy4Heat, kicked off in 2017 during former PM. Theresa May's reign (yes the UK has had several in the past few years). The British government had said all new boilers installed from 2026 should be "hydrogen-ready". The policy followed a string of announcements positioning the gas as a strong contender in the shift towards a zero-carbon economy. The program also set a 2035 date to phase out the sale of new and replacement gas boilers.

PM Johnson acquired a reputation for far-fetched and unfeasible infrastructure projects. He can now add the debunked hydrogen boiler pipedream to the list which includes an airport built on an artificial island on the Thames estuary, and a Garden Bridge connecting north and south London.

"The Commission's analysis demonstrates that there is no public policy case for hydrogen to be used to heat individual buildings. It should be ruled out as an option to enable an exclusive focus on switching to electrified heat," the commission said.

It urged the government to ensure that at least 7 million buildings switch from fossil fuel heating to electric heat pumps in order to meet the UK’s 2035 climate targets.

"Government should rule out supporting hydrogen heating to enable an exclusive focus on switching to electric heating. Government also needs a plan for phasing out the use of fossil fuels which addresses how the gas network will be decommissioned," the report said [PDF].

Gas boilers currently heat around 88 percent of English buildings. They will need to be replaced by heat pumps while around eight million additional buildings must switch to low carbon heating by 2035, and all buildings by 2050.

"Heat pumps and heat networks are the solution. They are highly efficient, available now and being deployed rapidly in other countries," the commission said.

It called on the government to commit £1.5 billion to £4.5 billion ($1.83-$5.5 billion) per year to improve energy efficiency and install heat pumps across the public sector estate and social housing that will help boost supply chains.

However, NIC sees hydrogen as a viable alternative to carbon fuels in industrial settings.

"Decarbonising the industrial sector requires switching from fossil fuels to a mix of electricity, hydrogen and fossil fuels abated with carbon capture and storage. Industry needs clarity from government on which decarbonisation routes will be open to them and certainty on where supporting infrastructure will be available and by when," it said.

Meanwhile, the omnipresent element can work as a back-up fuel when renewable energy is scarce, it said. "It's critical that government establishes effective business models that incentivise investment in large scale hydrogen and gas with carbon capture and storage power stations that can provide electricity even during extended calm or cloudy periods," the report said.

Although it is the universe's most abundant gas, hydrogen presents some challenges as a fuel. Most industrial hydrogen currently comes from natural gas, which releases CO2, and often relies on carbon energy sources – creating a double impact on emissions. In some cases, CO2 released in the process can be captured and stored, offering so-called blue hydrogen. So-called green hydrogen is made by using renewable energy to get hydrogen from water using electrolysis.

In the US, president Joe Biden recently backed hydrogen as the best bet to replace carbon fuels in heavy industry.

A spokesperson for the UK Government sent a statement:

"Delivering high quality infrastructure is the foundation of our future growth. Our Network North plan will deliver the transport that matters most to people and we’re adopting a fairer and more pragmatic approach to meeting net zero that supports households and families to make greener choices whilst easing the burdens on working people.

"We are delivering over £600bn of planned public sector investment in infrastructure, R&D and defence over the next five years, including an unprecedented package to improve connections in our city regions and billions to decarbonise buildings."


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