UK Urged to Snub Hydrogen and Focus on Heat Pumps for Homes

The UK should focus on expanding heat pumps and rule out using hydrogen to warm homes as it drives toward net-zero emissions, the government’s top infrastructure advisers say.

(Bloomberg) — The UK should focus on expanding heat pumps and rule out using hydrogen to warm homes as it drives toward net-zero emissions, the government’s top infrastructure advisers say.

The recommendations in a high-profile report mark an explicit intervention in the fraught debate over how to make UK heating systems greener. Trials to convert villages to hydrogen in northern England have been derailed by local opposition — partly on safety worries — but some analysts and investors say the country can blend hydrogen, produced by renewables, in the gas grid.

Hydrogen heating won’t be available in time to make a material contribution to the next emissions-reduction milestone, and the government should ban new connections of homes to the gas network from 2025, the National Infrastructure Commission said Wednesday. It also said the government also needs a plan for the “decommissioning, or repurposing” of the gas network.

“The commission’s analysis demonstrates that there is no public policy case for hydrogen to be used to heat individual buildings,” the NIC said in its second five-yearly assessment. “It should be ruled out as an option to enable an exclusive focus on switching to electrified heat.”

In addition, households should have access to zero-interest loans from the state and upfront subsidies — with the entire cost covered for the poorest — to install heat pumps or connect to heat networks, according to the NIC.

Hydrogen’s Role

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last month scrapped a proposal which would have ensured all new-build homes needed to have non-gas boilers from 2025. The government has said it will decide on hydrogen’s role in home heating by 2026.

The NIC maintains that hydrogen should be used in flexible power generation, so the grid can supply cleaner electricity when the weather curbs solar and wind-power generation. That should support the government’s plan to decarbonize the grid by 2035.

The GMB Union, which represents industrial sectors, strongly opposes the NIC’s stance on hydrogen.

“Today’s recommendation by the NIC is utterly farcical,” GMB National Secretary Andy Prendergast said in a statement. “Hydrogen gas offers one of the few realistic green solutions for heating available without overloading our creaking energy network.”

Comprehensive investment in infrastructure and clean power should cut household energy bills in half by 2050 once up-front spending is made, NIC member Nick Winser said on a media briefing. He recently issued recommendations on expanding grid infrastructure.

Heat-Pump Target

Still, the UK remains far behind on its target to install heat pumps and drastically needs to ramp up the roll-out. The government already offers grants of £7,500 but the NIC said the budget for the number of homes that can access them is too small.

“It’s not cutting the mustard at the moment,” NIC Chair John Armitt said on the briefing.

The commission said total public and private investment in economic infrastructure needs to rise from an annual average of about £55 billion ($67 billion) over the past decade — equal to roughly 10% of UK investment — to as much as £80 billion a year in the 2030s.

The NIC also urged the government to push for better recycling infrastructure and to expand water supply capacity. Britain’s water companies have faced a crisis this year amid mounting debt and political and media scrutiny over leaking pipes and the dumping of sewage into rivers and seas.

Other calls by the commission include for major public transport upgrades in England’s most congested cities. That’s alongside a “comprehensive review of rail priorities” after plans for a high-speed link between the West Midlands and Manchester were scrapped this month.

(Updates from third paragraph with mention of decommissioning, details on heat pumps in 11th.)

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