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The heat is on for hydrogen

Jeff House, Baxi Heating’s head of external affairs, outlines the exciting potential opportunities that hydrogen can offer for heating in existing commercial buildings and clarifies what ‘hydrogen-ready’ really means

 

Jeff House, Baxi Heating’s head of external affairs

Ten months ago, the UK Government set out its commitment to drive the growth of hydrogen as part of its 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution. Now with the UK Hydrogen Strategy freshly published, we at Baxi Heating believe that hydrogen has a key role to play in decarbonising our existing building stock.

For this reason, we are playing a leading role in developing hydrogen boiler technology and are one of a small number of companies with demonstration products working on 100% hydrogen in the field. So, why do we view hydrogen as a pillar of decarbonisation – along with electrification and heat networks – and how do we anticipate the transition from natural gas to hydrogen is likely to unfold?

Why hydrogen?

The national commitment to a net-zero carbon economy means that heat in buildings must be decarbonised. But in our existing ‘hard-to-tackle’ commercial premises the current technical and financial challenges to emissions reduction mean this is no mean feat.

Repurposing our existing gas network infrastructure to transport hydrogen offers a low disruption option in buildings like these, the majority of which are gas mains connected. Hydrogen boilers are carbon-free at the point of use, helping businesses and organisations to achieve their net-zero goals without major changes to their heating systems or buildings. End users will notice no difference and will be able to enjoy the same level of comfort as today without any expensive heating system alterations.

Hydrogen is a technically feasible solution too, as the existing UK gas grid can deliver a blend of natural gas and hydrogen now and switch to 100% hydrogen in the future. What’s more, it can help solve seasonal energy dilemmas. As an energy carrier, hydrogen can be used effectively to store energy over longer periods of time, providing important energy resilience and security.

Transition timeline

Demand for pure hydrogen boilers will be dictated by the gas distribution networks as their deployment will coincide with local area network conversions and larger scale pilot projects. It’s unlikely that large scale 100% hydrogen deployment will roll out much before 2030 – and this will vary from region to region. As a result, stepwise developments will be required.

• Stage 1 – 20% hydrogen blend: It is highly probable that a first step will be to introduce a blend of up to 20% hydrogen into the gas network. The 20% hydrogen blends are being demonstrated today using current natural gas boilers at the HyDeploy project at Keele University to prove that a 20:80 blend is a safer and greener alternative to the gas we use now. 

According to this work at the HyDeploy site and the Gas Safe Bulletin TB159, current domestic natural gas boilers and other appliances are compatible with hydrogen blends of up to 20%. This means that no changes to heating products, guidance or measures are needed in people’s homes. And with no alterations required to boilers or installation, there is no disruption for customers. A similar outcome is expected in the commercial sector, but work is ongoing now given that a minority of specific applications need to be assessed. 

It is important to clarify that the ability of an appliance to run on a blend of 20% hydrogen to 80% natural gas does not meet the definition of hydrogen ready.  

• Stage 2 – ‘Hydrogen-ready’ boilers: The next phase will be the introduction of ‘hydrogen-ready’ boilers, which we see as the bridging solution to the energy transition. 

‘Hydrogen ready’ is defined as a boiler that can operate on natural gas at the point of installation and can then be converted to run on 100% hydrogen – with a conversion kit – during its service life. 

The UK Government’s Energy White Paper commits to a consultation on the role for ‘hydrogen-ready appliances’ this year. We are preparing for this and will update with any potential regulatory mandate. 

As of today, the standards and certification framework to enable a product to be classified as ‘hydrogen-ready’ are not yet in place, so any claims that products are ‘hydrogen-ready’ now are inaccurate and potentially misleading. 

• Stage 3 – 100% hydrogen boilers

The final evolution will be boilers that are designed to operate on 100% hydrogen at the point of installation. We are demonstrating prototypes of pure hydrogen boilers through the UK Government’s Hy4Heat programme, with larger-scale trial projects in development. 

Preparing for the future of heat

The diversity of building types in the UK means that there can be no silver bullet to decarbonisation. How best, then, to support businesses and organisations through the energy transition? 

We believe that manufacturers should take an informed, impartial and pragmatic approach by providing specifiers and contractors with the most appropriate heating solutions that will meet individual requirements. This will enable building operators and owners to select the right solutions at the right time to achieve their goals.

At Baxi Heating, we have pledged that products we make from 2025 will work with low carbon energy, either operating on electricity (a heat pump or direct resistive system) or having the ability to convert to run on hydrogen during its service life. 

And while we are preparing for the evolution of the boiler, we also recognise the need for immediate action to refurbish ageing heating systems. Retrofitting today’s high efficiency, low NOx gas condensing boilers – which can operate on the 20% hydrogen blend – remains an affordable and achievable opportunity for building operators to set ‘hard-to-heat’ buildings on the road to the future of heating.

From identifying immediate opportunities for significant savings to supplying the products that will lead businesses to net zero, we look forward to supporting specifiers and contractors through the heating revolution.

8 September 2021

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