Boris Johnson's plan to ramp up hydrogen reliance 'may not be viable'

Boris Johnson’s plan to ramp up hydrogen reliance faces concerns from experts who fear it ‘may not be viable’ amid concerns fossil fuel companies are ‘overselling’ the energy

  • Boris Johnson hopes industry will generate five gigawatts of hydrogen by 2030
  • PM believes ramped-up production could heat an entire town by end of decade 
  • Up to 25million gas boilers would need to be replaced with hydrogen boilers
  • University of Exeter research suggests mass hydrogen use ‘may not be viable’
  • It warns fossil fuel companies are ‘overselling,’ the effectiveness of hydrogen  

Boris Johnson’s plan to ramp up Britain’s reliance on hydrogen to heat homes faces concerns from experts who fear it ‘may not be viable,’ if rolled-out across the country – amid concerns fossil fuel companies are ‘overselling,’ the energy.

The Prime Minister announced a 10-point ‘green industrial revolution, which he says will create 250,000 jobs and cut Britain’s carbon emissions.

One of the most ambitious elements of the proposal is a plan to produce five gigawatts of hydrogen by 2030 – even hoping to heat an entire town with the low-carbon fuel by the end of the decade.

The proposal would see 25million gas boilers replaced with hydrogen or ‘hydrogen-ready,’ boilers over the next 20 years – at a rate of 600,000 a year by 2028.

External pipeworks that deliver the hydrogen to homes and boilers will need to be changed, because hydrogen is a less dense gas – and it is often compressed and stored under high-pressure so it has sufficient energy content for processes. 

But academics have cast doubt over how effective hydrogen could be as a replacement, amid warnings that the Government could be getting ‘carried away’.

Boris Johnson has set out a 10-point environmental plan which backs hydrogen as the future of warming Britain’s homes – but experts warn it is a huge project, with concerns it ‘may not prove viable’

Hydrogen boilers could be a staple of British homes by 2030 – but it would mean replacing 25million existing units 

Dr Richard Lowes from the University of Essex warned: ‘Getting to a sustainable heat system demands rapid and major interventions, it is a huge challenge and there is simply no time for delay.

‘We are in no doubt that decarbonising the heat sector will be extremely difficult but it is possible using known technologies. The idea that the gas grid can simply be switched to run on hydrogen remains deeply uncertain from both a cost and technical perspective.

Dr Lowes warned the Government should expect that ‘low carbon gas, including hydrogen, may not prove viable at scale’. 

Speaking to the FT this week, he warned against getting ‘carried away,’ over hydrogen’s possibilities. 

The Unversity of Exeter warned companies ‘with existing interests around fossil fuel heat were overselling the idea of converting the UK’s existing gas infrastructure to run on low carbon gases such as hydrogen.’

In September David Cebon, a professor of engineering at Cambridge University, told The Times: ‘Much scientific evidence shows that widespread adoption of hydrogen (instead of electricity) for heating and heavy vehicles would be detrimental to the UK’s economy, its energy security and its decarbonisation commitments.’

Dr Richard Lowes at the University of Exeter, warned: ‘The idea that the gas grid can simply be switched to run on hydrogen remains deeply uncertain from both a cost and technical perspective’

A graphic outlining the ten different areas of Boris Johnson’s 10-point environmental plan which was announced earlier today

Natural gas heats the vast majority of UK homes, but contributes around a fifth of the country’s carbon emissions. 

There is potential to replace gas boilers with hydrogen, or even a hybrid of hydrogen boilers and heat pumps, but they will need energy efficient homes to reduce the demand for hydrogen which has to be manufactured.

Experts online have also warned that heating engineers would need to be retrained in order to handle hydrogen boilers and test them safely.

Tim Harwood, who is in charge of hydrogen projects at Northern Gas Networks, which owns local gas grids in north-east England, told the Financial Times much of the possible disruption caused would depend on how many hydrogen-ready boilers have been installed in homes when the switch comes. 

He said if the government would mandate these types of boilers in homes, ‘they are easily convertible to hydrogen when the time comes by just simply changing a few small parts and probably half an hour disruption’.  

Citizens Advice has also warned new meters will have to be made when the change comes, to ensure people are billed correctly.

Hydrogen in the home: Fears over ‘flammable,’ and odourless fuel 

Hydrogen boilers would work in a similar way to their gas equivalents, according Boiler Guide.

They would be installed the same way and look similar, with connection to the gas network.Boiler Guide states: ‘Only a handful of components, such as the flame detector and burner, would need to be replaced to suit hydrogen.’

An article on the website states production is ‘not cheap,’ and warns it can emit carbon.

There are also warnings about the volatile nature of hydrogen, which could result in explosions and leaks that are difficult to detect.

Boiler Guide states: ‘Because of its high energy content, hydrogen gas is a highly flammable and volatile substance which makes it a risky fuel to work with. 

‘Hydrogen is incredibly flammable which makes it a dangerous fuel if not handled correctly. There is also no smell to hydrogen so sensors are required to detect leaks.’ 

Billing methodology will also need to change to reflect the energy used in a home, rather than the volume of gas delivered.

Another alternative to gas boilers is heat pumps or district heat networks which can pipe hot water in underground pipes to bring heat to homes from a central source, such as an energy from waste plant or even former mines.

Heat pumps are installed in individual houses and are powered by electricity, working a bit like a fridge in reverse to generate heat from the outside air, or sometimes the ground, to provide heating and hot water in the home.

Greenpeace UK is not fully behind the idea of converting heating systems to hydrogen either.

The environmental group’s head of politics Rebecca Newsom said today’s announcement marked a ‘turning point on climate action,’ but warned: ‘It’s a shame the Prime Minister remains fixated on other speculative solutions, such as nuclear and hydrogen from fossil fuels, that will not be taking us to zero emissions anytime soon, if ever.

‘But although there are some significant question marks and gaps, overall this is a big step forward for tackling the climate emergency.’

Making his announcement today, Mr Johnson said: ‘Although this year has taken a very different path to the one we expected, I haven’t lost sight of our ambitious plans to level up across the country.

‘My ten-point plan will create, support and protect hundreds of thousands of green jobs, whilst making strides towards net zero by 2050.

‘Our green industrial revolution will be powered by the wind turbines of Scotland and the North East, propelled by the electric vehicles made in the Midlands and advanced by the latest technologies developed in Wales, so we can look ahead to a more prosperous, greener future.’

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