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Is hydrogen the future of heating?

An intention to drive the use of hydrogen for heating in the Prime Minister’s latest 10-point carbon plan has pushed this fuel higher up the zero carbon agenda. Steve McConnell of ICOM considers the implications

Steve McConnell of ICOM

The possibility of using hydrogen as an alternative to high-carbon fuels for a wide range of heating applications has been under discussion for several years and it’s probably true to say that many people considered this option somewhat ‘pie in the sky’. However, there are now strong indications that hydrogen will play a key role in the UK’s progress towards achieving net zero carbon by 2050.

To provide some background, the sixth carbon budget report from the Committee for Climate Change emphasised the need to remove high carbon fuels from the market, including oil, coal, LPG and, eventually, natural gas. The report also agreed with the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan, published in November 2020, to provide a route map towards the 2050 goal. The second of these 10 points was to: ‘drive the growth of low carbon hydrogen’.

It’s also worth noting that the 10-point plan precedes the next Climate Change Conference, COP26, to be held in Scotland later this year and chaired by the UK – giving us an ideal opportunity to promote the low carbon fuel message to a wider audience.

Showing promise

In terms of the viability of hydrogen as a low carbon fuel there are many projects underway to assess the safety and operation of hydrogen, as well as the associated infrastructure requirements.

One of the first of these was the OFGEM-funded H100 project in Fife, the first funded project to live-trial hydrogen. Here, wind energy is used to generate the electrical power needed to split water into hydrogen and oxygen with the hydrogen being distributed to domestic dwelling via a new network. Although this project is domestic rather than commercial, its aim is to show that a hydrogen grid is achievable. To this end, the project has already established that the existing natural gas network is suitable for distributing hydrogen.

Domestic applications are also the main focus of the Hy4Heat project funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). This project has been set up to demonstrate that existing appliances using natural gas can be modified to use 100% hydrogen. Thus far, the work has shown very positive results with domestic boilers, gas fires and cookers.

The ability to effectively ‘swap’ natural gas for hydrogen in heating systems will be very important in the domestic sector, as it will avoid the disruption and additional cost of switching to heat pumps in older properties. 

Commercial sector

There is also a work package in the Hy4Heat project investigating the commercial sector and although the scope did not cover all the heating products in the commercial market, one area covering air and radiant heaters is also giving a positive outlook from the results of early test work.

ICOM, which represents commercial and industrial heating equipment manufacturers, would like to see the Hy4Heat project extended to enable work on other product sectors, such as commercial water heaters and boilers as well as industrial plant such as drying ovens and kilns. Indeed, with so much focus on the domestic sector it’s important to ensure that commercial and industrial markets are supported with regard to hydrogen.

The non-domestic market is considerably more diverse in terms of products than the domestic sector, so considerable work is needed to ensure that a wide range of appliances and process equipment will operate efficiently on hydrogen. For example, many commercial projects currently employing low carbon heat sources still need input from gas-fired boilers to meet peak loads. Hydrogen-fired boilers will potentially take on this role.

There are also a number of products and processes, such as drying ovens and kilns, that require high temperatures that would be difficult to achieve without the option of hydrogen.

Recognising the complexities of the commercial and industrial sectors, ICOM is working with BEIS, the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers (IGEM), BSI and CEN (for European standards) to ensure these sectors are heard. Our industry also needs a clear policy from the Government to confirm that hydrogen will be the way forward, so that companies can plan their future investments.


17 February 2021


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