hydrogen gas pipes

Hydrogen – an alternative fuel for the homes of the UK?

Steffen's View

3 minutes

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The unpredictable weather makes the UK a unique market when it comes to hot water and heating solutions. Fluctuating seasonal weather patterns means that there are large peaks and troughs in demand for hot water and heating throughout the year. When demand is high in the winter months there is intense pressure on the national gas grid. Residential heat and hot water use contributes 14 per cent to current UK carbon emissions. Therefore, if the UK is to meet its carbon targets we must decarbonize our heating and hot water systems at home. Currently 85% of households use natural gas to heat their homes.

In the UK we have a unique asset – the national gas grid, a complex nationwide network of underground pipes built up since the introduction of gas as a fuel in the 1700s.

Electric heat pumps have been proposed as the solution by the Committee on Climate Change. However they are not easy to retrofit into existing housing stock. In the UK there are many single, poorly insulated, terraced houses each with an individual heating system, many of which will not have the space to install a heat pump and hot water cylinder. This solution is also only carbon neutral if the electricity used to power them is carbon neutral itself. It is the fuel and not the system that produces the emissions after all.

In the UK we have a unique asset – the national gas grid, a complex nationwide network of underground pipes built up since the introduction of gas as a fuel in the 1700s. It would be wrong to make this system redundant. Instead it can be used to transport an alternative fuel - Hydrogen. Hydrogen is a safe, low carbon alternative to natural gas, that doesn’t produce CO₂ as it burns. If the electricity that is needed to generate hydrogen comes from renewable sources – wind or water – the whole process is fully carbon-neutral. Hydrogen can be produced as a by-product of other industrial processes and can use the existing infrastructure.

worcester bosch hydrogen lab

By coincidence the UK Government are currently in the process of replacing all the UK mains gas pipes with polythene (forecasted to be completed by 2032), a material that is highly compatible with hydrogen gas. It is also possible to implement in a phased approach – the network can run using a hybrid fuel which is a mix of natural gas and hydrogen. This would remove the needs for a costly system overhaul for each individual household. Although existing boilers cannot burn 100% hydrogen fuel currently, it is possible that they can burn a mixed fuel and that a ‘hydrogen ready’ boiler could burn natural gas up until the point of change over. And we have done this before – in the 1970s the UK migrated to natural gas from town gas which was 55% hydrogen.

The UK Government has committed to decarbonising heating and hot water solutions by 2050, and therefore our reliance on natural gas needs to decrease significantly. Engineers working in our hot water and heating business, Worcester Bosch Group, are busy working on a solution for the future and have recently built two prototype boilers that can burn hydrogen. Real world trials are due to go ahead in England, Scotland and the Netherlands from 2021, which if successful could prove a large milestone in securing the future of hydrogen and the national gas network. We are looking forward to being involved in supporting this effort utilising the expertise of our engineers at Worcester Bosch.