The UK energy market is undergoing a period of change. The UK government has set a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. To achieve this, significant structural changes will be required in the nation’s gas central heating network.
Industry bodies have already proposed several different alternatives to the traditional gas boiler. Some experts believe that air and ground source heat pumps may provide one possible solution. These are essentially new technologies. Another alternative exists that would enable use of much of the UK’s existing infrastructure: Hydrogen ready boilers.
So, how do hydrogen boilers work and are they a serious alternative to your traditional gas central heating?
What is a hydrogen boiler?
The key to hydrogen boilers is that they work in a similar manner to gas boilers. They therefore do not need a significant change to the UK’s heating infrastructure. The key benefit of a hydrogen boiler is that instead of burning air-polluting fossil fuels it’s core system is powered by hydrogen.
Natural gas is a fossil fuel that releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Hydrogen is a zero-carbon fuel and burning hydrogen instead of gas would make a significant contribution to the UK’s sustainability targets.
Hydrogen boilers are still very new and there are a range of different views as to how they could work. Whilst hydrogen is a zero-carbon fuel the process used to create the carbon gas can itself generate carbon dioxide. Any carbon emitted during the production process would have to be captured and contained.
One solution to this problem could lie in electrolysis. This would separate water into it’s two natural constituent elements, oxygen and hydrogen. Other solutions linking the hydrogen boiler with an air source heat pump have also been proposed. This would create an even more sustainable solution but present its own challenges around infrastructure.
When will hydrogen replace gas?
In the immediate future it is possible that hybrid systems which can use both natural gas and hydrogen will mark our first step towards a hydrogen future. Much like hybrid cars with both petrol engines and electric motors were a first step to full electric vehicles, brands like Worcester Bosch and Viessmann have developed prototype hybrid boiler systems. These could initially use gas and then switch to hydrogen.
It’s likely that any move to hydrogen would be gradual. Current tests have a blend of 20% hydrogen and 80% natural gas. Over time the market would then move to a richer blend until we reached the point where the gas provided was 100% hydrogen.
Estimates about the work required to add hydrogen to the gas network vary. Experts tend to agree though that this change could be made before the end of the decade.
In the meantime, UK government trials of hydrogen as a heating fuel are underway. A small trail of homes in Winlaton, near Gateshead in the North East of England, started earlier this year. 670 homes, small businesses and a school are being supplied with a 20% hydrogen and 80% natural gas mix. Northern Gas Networks, the company running the Winlaton trial, are also running a trial at their research site in Cumbria. Two show homes are being supplied with 100% hydrogen.
National Grid is also running a trial of 300 homes in Fife, fitting them with free hydrogen boilers and heaters. Supply of 100% hydrogen is expected to start in 2022.
What are the environmental benefits of a switch to hydrogen?
The UK’s energy supply is second only to the transport sector in terms of net greenhouse gas emissions. Energy outputs contribute over 20% of the UK’s total carbon emissions. Gas central heating remains the most popular form of heating in the UK, with about 95% of homes using this method, so finding a climate friendly solution to this issue would deliver huge benefits.
There’s no denying that gas heating offers many benefits, but there’s also no way to use this fuel without burning fossil fuels. Through this process greenhouse gasses are released, consequently causing temperatures to rise. Even if this weren’t a fundamental concern it’s also the case that fossil fuels will ultimately run out, making them an unreliable source of heating for the future.
A switch to hydrogen would deliver huge environmental benefits and provide a consistent source of renewable energy for the foreseeable future.
Advantages and Disadvantages of hydrogen boilers
The development of hydrogen technology would undoubtedly benefit the global fight against climate change, but it’s not without risks. Let’s take a look as the pros and cons:
- Reducing emissions of carbon – Hydrogen is a fully renewable and clean energy source that releases only water and heat during combustion.
- Improved efficiency – The energy contained within 1kg of hydrogen is roughly equivalent to that within 2.8kg of gas. This means that less fuel would be needed to provide the same amount of heating.
- Fit existing infrastructure – The current distribution infrastructure would not need to be modified or replaced in order to accommodate hydrogen.
- Safety risks – Hydrogen is a highly flammable gas, just like natural gas. Unlike natural gas, hydrogen doesn’t carry an odour, making it harder to detect a leak. There’s no reason that hydrogen boilers and pipes cannot be as safe as gas, but we must always be aware of the risks.
- The production of hydrogen can itself release carbon – Although hydrogen is a zero-carbon fuel, the production of hydrogen can involve the burning of fossil fuels. To remain zero-carbon any emissions in its production would need to be captured and contained. Pairing of hydrogen production with renewable sources like solar panels or wind turbines would be one possible solution.
Can I buy a hydrogen boiler today?
Prototypes already exist, but there are not any hydrogen-ready boilers available in the market now. Hybrid hydrogen/gas boilers are thought to be imminent. Brands such as Worcester Bosch, Viessmann and Baxi are leading the way in these developments.
How much could a hydrogen boiler cost?
As manufacturers are still at the prototype stage of hydrogen boiler development estimates of cost are sketchy. The aim is that hydrogen boilers would cost no more that equivalent gas boilers, making it easy for consumers to make the change, but we should know it will be expensive in initial phase but maybe in future it will be cheaper then gas and electric boiler.
Gas boiler installations can cost between £1000-£3,000, depending on the type of boiler required and the size of the property that it needs to heat.
How can I heat my home efficiently in the meantime?
Hydrogen heating systems may only be a few years away, but if your boiler needs to be replaced today there are still several different options available to you which will benefits you:
- A new A-Rated efficient boiler could reduce your energy bills by 30%.
- Air and ground-source heat pumps are other renewable energy options available now.
- Insulate your property; you can lose 25% of the heat generated in your home through a poorly insulated roof or walls.
Keith Harrison is a technical content writer who like to write about the latest and future technologies his skills are up to mark and he’s a research based writer who likes to find out the future technologies and how it will benefits us in future, he has wrote some amazing articles related to boilers.
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