You can think of your gas boiler as a staunch workhorse that sits in a corner, flawlessly heating your home and providing hot water year after year.
But for the government, it is an environmental vandal that has had its day.
This week, the Department for Business released its white paper on energy, suggesting ways it hopes Britain could become net zero carbon by 2050. Like it or not, your boiler at gas is in his sights.
By the mid-2030s, the document insists, all new heating systems will need to be low-carbon or have the potential to be converted to a ‘clean fuel supply’, that is, hydrogen.
But how realistic are the Prime Minister’s plans to replace all of our boilers? Is the timeline possible – or will the whole country end up paying the price for its impetuosity?
This week, the Department for Business released its White Paper on Energy, suggesting ways it hopes Britain could become net zero carbon by 2050. Pictured: Business Secretary Alok Sharma visiting the Carbon Capture Lab at Imperial College London
It’s hard not to be cynical. We’ve heard that hydrogen is the answer to all of our energy problems so many times it’s tempting to view government enthusiasm as the product itself: a load of hot gas.
In addition, the PM approaches environmental issues with the zeal of the convert. He was once a skeptic who wrote that wind turbines “couldn’t tear the skin off a rice pudding,” but he is now one of the strongest advocates of green energy in government.
His administration has already announced a ban on new gasoline and diesel cars from 2030, ten years ahead of the previous schedule. He has promised to quadruple offshore wind power. And it wants to reduce carbon emissions faster than any other country.
It’s also easy to see the hand of Boris Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, in her Damascene conversion.
She has campaigned on green issues and is friends with fellow eco-activists, Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith and her brother Ben, who sits on the board of Defra.
Boris’ father Stanley can also be a big influence – last year he spoke at an Extinction Rebellion rally. There is no doubt that a possible conversion to hydrogen could make sense. For starters, the oil and gas industry is proving to be an enthusiastic investor.
The green energy trend threatens fossil fuel producers, but at least with hydrogen (as opposed to solar and wind power) they are ahead of the game.
They already produce large amounts of gas, which is used in the oil refining process.
The gas companies are hoping that the existing distribution network can be used to deliver hydrogen to homes – allowing them to make profits in a green future.
The trend towards green energy threatens fossil fuel producers, but at least with hydrogen (as opposed to solar and wind power) they are ahead of the game. In the photo: A hydrogen boiler tested in Rozenburg in the Netherlands
Hydrogen can also prove to be the cheapest and least disruptive way to make our homes carbon neutral, simply forcing us to replace our gas boiler with a hydrogen version when the first one reaches the end of its life.
According to Worcester Bosch, who has built prototypes of hydrogen boilers, there is no reason why when mass produced they should cost more than gas boilers, which cost around £ 600.
This is because boilers are being developed that can run on natural gas or hydrogen, so not all of us would have to replace our boilers at once.
The low carbon alternative to hydrogen is to replace gas boilers with electric heat pumps. But these are much more expensive, with air pumps costing up to £ 8,000. That’s not all.
Heat pumps operate with lower water temperatures than gas boilers, which could mean having to install much larger radiators or underfloor heating.
So there are a number of reasons for taking hydrogen seriously. The problem is, there are huge issues to overcome before it can get to our homes and there is no guarantee that they can be fixed by the date the government wants to set. to ban gas boilers.
It would be just five years from now for new homes – although no UK home to date has a hydrogen boiler.
The biggest problem is that hydrogen doesn’t occur naturally as a self-contained chemical element. It has to be manufactured – a process that itself consumes large amounts of energy.
There is nothing “green” about the hydrogen currently produced: almost all of it comes from coal or natural gas, in a process that is estimated to produce as many carbon emissions globally. than Great Britain and Indonesia combined.
For hydrogen to be part of a carbon-free future, the factories that produce it will either have to capture the carbon emissions and pump them underground or be produced by electrolysis – a process that involves passing electric currents through it. ‘water.
But none of these technologies have yet been proven on a commercial scale. A £ 1bn plan in Scotland to build a commercial carbon capture plant collapsed five years ago.
An experimental electrolysis plant that was opened in northern Germany during the summer is looking to produce green hydrogen on a commercial scale, but it is still early days.
If we take the electrolysis route, hydrogen cannot be as carbon-free as the electricity used to produce it, which would require massive scale-up of wind farms, solar power and hydropower.
In the meantime, it would be foolish to assume that we can produce sufficient amounts of green hydrogen at an affordable price.
The gas companies are hoping that the existing distribution network can be used to deliver hydrogen to homes – allowing them to make profits in a green future. (Stock Image)
The other big issue is security. When many people hear the word “hydrogen,” they think of the Hindenburg, the German airship that caught fire when it arrived in New Jersey in 1937, killing 35 people and detonating Hitler’s claim to technological prowess.
Being made up of very small molecules, hydrogen is more likely to escape from pipe cracks than natural gas. In addition, it can turn broken iron and steel pipes, which still constitute a large part of our gas distribution network.
Then there is the problem of what happens if hydrogen leaks into our homes. Natural gas, of course, is an explosion hazard in itself, as we were reminded last weekend when a house in Lincolnshire was destroyed.
But hydrogen is more dangerous. It has a very wide flammability range, so it can explode whether present in large or small concentrations.
These problems are not insurmountable. We could replace any remaining iron and steel gas lines with polyethylene, which already forms the bulk of our gas network.
Northern Gas Networks, in association with consultancy firm DNV GL, built a row of three houses on a remote airfield in Cumbria to test how dangerous hydrogen is around the house; if, for example, a leak could be turned on by a light switch.
There is always the possibility of installing hydrogen boilers outside our homes – gas dissipates very well in the open air.
We must also remember that hydrogen is not exactly an alien in our homes. Before Britain converted to natural gas over a 10-year period from the mid-1960s, our homes were heated, and before that lit, with “town gas” made from coal. It was about 50 percent hydrogen.
No one, then, should write off hydrogen boilers. But as it tends to do on anything to do with climate change, and as it has on the Covid testing and tracing system, the government is letting its enthusiasm get a step ahead of the technology.
History is full of technologies that never delivered on their promises, such as nuclear fusion, which in the 1970s, we were told, would soon provide us with virtually unlimited amounts of almost free energy, but which continues to elude technologists.
Hydrogen-heated homes could turn out to be another misfire. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try it – hydrogen-powered cars and buses exist, and trains are being tested for introduction in 2023.
But it does suggest that setting a date to phase out gas boilers even before we know if we’ll have a commercially viable alternative could be very unwise.
The Denial, by Ross Clark, is published by Lume Books.