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The government has said that the first UK homes with hydrogen boilers and hobs will be built by April. What does this mean for the future of heating and will it propel the decarbonisation of buildings?

The transition to clean heating

Heating our homes and buildings contributes to an estimated 19% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is because the vast majority of houses in the UK rely on gas boilers and many have poor energy efficiency standards. It is clear that to reach our net zero target by 2050, the government will have to prioritise decarbonising heating.

Steps are already going in the right direction. A ban on gas boilers in all new builds from 2025 will ensure low carbon heating methods in future homes. And the government is considering moving some levies away from power to gas bills as early as March this year. This would make electricity cheaper and incentivise its use for transport and heating.

According to the most recent energy white paper, low carbon heating initiatives will continue to increase. This could mean that greener solutions such as heat pumps, district heating, and even hydrogen boilers will be more widely considered, especially for new houses.

Heat pumps and district heating

The most common replacements for gas boilers are heat pumps. These use only around a quarter of the energy needed for a traditional gas boiler and rely solely on electricity. Making them a greener and more efficient solution as the UK shifts to renewable power.

District heat networks are another lower carbon heating solution. This is where a central source heats water which is shared among nearby homes through networks of insulated pipes. This communal option can be ideal for social housing as it is a cost-effective and sustainable option.

As technology evolves and more green solutions emerge, these methods could be further improved to be even more environmentally friendly.

Green hydrogen and nuclear

Green hydrogen has seen a massive rise in support from governments around the world. In the UK’s recent energy white paper, it may not have featured as heavily as renewables, but it was certainly a focal point of the government’s plan. Hydrogen has long been an ideal solution for decarbonising energy-intensive industries such as mining or transport. But the government plans also outline the role it will play in decarbonising buildings. These strategies are already being implemented, with hydrogen heating being trialled in the North of England.

Hydrogen can be used for heating in a couple of different ways. In Gateshead, the UK’s first homes to be fitted with boilers and hobs that run on hydrogen rather than fossil fuel gas are planned to be built by April. These homes will use 100% hydrogen for heating and cooking in appliances including boilers, hobs, cookers and fires. In another village nearby, they will be trialling natural gas blended with hydrogen. In this pilot town, 670 houses plus the local church, primary school and several businesses will receive the hydrogen blend for a period of around 10 months, starting this year.

So, where does nuclear come in? According to the Hydrogen Roadmap recently released by the Nuclear Industry Council (NIC), nuclear power could produce one-third of the UK’s clean hydrogen needs by 2050. It outlines how large-scale and small modular reactors (SMRs) can produce both the power and the heat necessary to produce emissions-free hydrogen.

The importance of energy efficiency

So, is hydrogen the key to decarbonising heating in future homes and buildings? Some say yes, but many are critical of this approach. A coalition of 33 organisations recently urged the European Commission to prioritise renewables and energy efficiency over hydrogen as part of Europe’s efforts to decarbonise buildings.

In an open letter, they wrote: “It is true that renewable hydrogen can play a role in decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors (…) But its direct use for heating on a large scale is problematic because it comes with many uncertainties linked to the scalability, costs of its production and inefficiencies.”

They go on to say that energy efficiency methods “must be favoured” to decarbonise buildings “because they can immediately deliver real carbon savings while accommodating a growing share of renewable sources.”

What does Monarch think?

As sustainability simplifiers, our goal at Monarch is to provide our clients with real, sustainable solutions. While energy efficiency may not be as hot a trend as hydrogen, it can’t be ignored as one of the most obvious, and powerful, decarbonisation methods. It is also one of the best tools we have for tackling fuel poverty.

We work with over 200 housing associations, many of which face a range of unique challenges. Our aim is to help them navigate the fluctuations of the energy landscape and streamline processes that would otherwise be time-consuming and complex.

We like to keep our clients ahead of the curve while giving realistic and actionable insight and advice. Our ‘2021 Outlook for Social Housing’ outlines the upcoming trends in energy that housing associations need to know.

Download our report and learn more about what is on the horizon for energy and social housing.

To embark on your sustainability journey, contact us at Monarch.

Evelyn Chapman

Author Evelyn Chapman

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