Scientists who advise the Scottish Government have warned that discussion about using hydrogen to heat homes risks becoming a “distraction” on the path to net-zero.
It also cautioned that “current evidence” suggests the technology will be more expensive than alternatives like heat pumps. It is “critical to offset” the danger that hydrogen heating is promoted to “benefit commercial interests” rather than those of the public, the briefing added.
Hydrogen is being promoted by the owners of the UK’s gas distribution networks as a clean alternative to natural gas for heating homes. Gas networks could become largely obsolete without a widespread switch to hydrogen.
Gas needs to be phased out because burning it produces carbon dioxide emissions which contribute to the climate crisis.
Critics of hydrogen heating welcomed the SSAC’s comments and branded the technology “costly and inefficient folly”.
There is a danger that “homeowners and landlords are delaying upgrading their homes and heating” because they are being led to believe that hydrogen is “the solution,” one claimed.
But SGN, the company which owns Scotland’s gas networks – and behind the first major trial of hydrogen heating in Fife – said it still believes hydrogen has the “potential to deliver decarbonised homes and buildings as part of a whole systems approach which utilises a number of technologies”.
Advocates of hydrogen heating argue that it is a low disruption way of decarbonising homes because it will use the same types of appliances as gas and be delivered by existing gas pipelines. They also claim that the upfront costs of switching to hydrogen would be lower for consumer than heat pumps.
Despite this, there are a growing number of experts and scientists who oppose the technology.
A peer reviewed study published in September found that “all the independent research” on hydrogen heating found it is “a lot less efficient and more expensive than alternatives such as heat pumps, district heating and thermal”.
Meanwhile, Westminster’s science and technology committee said in a report that hydrogen is “not a panacea” and its use for home heating is “likely to be limited rather than widespread”.
The SSAC briefing – published on 30 November – argued that the “highest priority” for the domestic heating sector is insulating homes so there is less need for heating.
However, it did suggest a potential role for hydrogen in some rural locations and as a backup to heat pumps when electricity demand is high.
The Scottish Government published an updated hydrogen action plan earlier in December outlining how it will scale up production to help efforts to reach net-zero by 2045.
The plan saw a reduced role for hydrogen heat. The minister for zero carbon buildings, Patrick Harvie, has said that he “does not expect hydrogen to play a central role” in the decarbonisation of domestic heat.
Although it has cooled on the potential for hydrogen to be used for heating, the Scottish Government remains a major investor in the country’s biggest trial of the technology, the H100 project in Fife.
It invested £6.9m in H100, which is being led by SGN. The project is aiming to prove the viability of hydrogen heating by using hydrogen produced by a nearby wind farm to heat 300 homes in Levenmouth.
But H100 has been beset by delays. At the start of December, The Ferret reported that it has so far failed to sign up 300 households in the area despite offering them a £1000 payment and free hydrogen appliances if they take part.
In response to a query about our report in the Scottish Parliament on 15 December, Patrick Harvie said that the Scottish Government was liaising with SGN about the lack of sign ups.
The main decision about the future of hydrogen heating and the gas network is set to be made by the UK Government in 2026 and trials leading up to then are meant to prove it is a safe and cost-effective replacement for gas.
Alex Lee, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said that the Scottish Government should “heed the advice” of the SSAC and “focus on real and much needed solutions to the heating crisis like retrofitting buildings”.
Lee said: “The forthcoming energy strategy is a chance to invest in heating solutions like heat pumps and insulating homes that can help people with their bills and tackle climate change.”
Gillian Campbell of the Existing Homes Alliance – a coalition of housing, environmental, fuel poverty and industry associations – argued the evidence had become “clear that hydrogen is too expensive and inefficient to play a significant role in heating our homes”.
“There is a real risk that homeowners and landlords are delaying upgrading their homes and heating because they are being led to believe that hydrogen will provide the solution,” Campbell claimed.
The chair of the SSAC, Professor Maggie Gill, said: “No single pathway will deliver a low carbon energy system for heating homes with the urgency required and multiple options need to be pursued.
“Yet there is a need for governments to provide a sense of direction to inform infrastructure investment planning by private and public sectors, including heat networks, and spending decisions by householders about energy efficiency improvements and new heating systems.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said that the potential role of hydrogen for heating buildings “depends on strategic decisions made by the UK Government”.
They added: “Therefore our Heat in Buildings Strategy focuses action to decarbonise homes this decade through other available technologies such as heat pumps and heat networks as we cannot afford to delay action.”
Waseem Hanif, a spokesperson for SGN said: “We welcome the Scottish Science Advisory Council’s report to which we supplied evidence.
“We are working hard with the UK and Scottish Governments and industry to develop the evidence base for a decision on hydrogen for heat in 2026. We believe that hydrogen does have the potential to deliver decarbonised homes and buildings as part of a whole systems approach which utilises a number of technologies.
The Ferret has received funding from the Global Strategic Communications Council, a collaborative project hosted by the European Climate Foundation, to investigate the roll out of hydrogen in Scotland. The Ferret maintains complete editorial independence.
Cover Photo: iStock/Jelena Stanojkovic