Hydrogen, and then again

Claire Coutinho, the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, visits the UK Atomic Energy Agency. Image: Rosie Hallam / DESNZ / Creative Commons 2.0.  

Using Hydrogen for heating is a red herring. The future remains electric.

This year made the case for pivoting away from natural gas all too clearly - the future of space heating is electric.

The residents of the town of Redcar heaved a collective sigh of relief as the government U-turned on its plan to turn the town into a ‘hydrogen village’. Can we blame them? 


Claire Coutinho, Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, made bold claims about the amount of money and jobs that would be created through the uptake of hydrogen. Even if we leave the truth of those claims aside, using hydrogen to heat our homes remains a pipe dream. Here’s why. 

Creating hydrogen is itself an energy intensive process. In order to create pure hydrogen, electricity has to be passed through water in the process of hydrolysis. This itself takes vast amounts of energy. 


That’s why it would make more sense to use this electrical energy to heat our homes directly. In fact, one study points to the fact that using hydrogen produced with electricity from renewable energy sources, (otherwise known as green hydrogen) to heat the whole UK housing stock would require up to six times more offshore wind capacity than heat pumps. 

In other words, it would take one-sixth of the energy to get the UK through the winter with heat pumps instead of hydrogen. Clearly, the laws of thermodynamics were never on Claire Coutinho’s side. Luckily, there are electrified alternatives. 

For example, heat pumps are almost magical appliances that produce around three units of heat for every unit of electricity you put into them - whereas hydrogen would give you far less than one unit of heat for each unit of energy. In fact, the overall process to produce, transport, and burn hydrogen for heating is less than 50 per cent efficient

So, we know hydrogen is much less efficient than using electricity for heating. We then have to ask the question as to whether hydrogen would even be any greener than using natural gas. In reality, hydrogen can only be ‘green’ when the electricity used in the electrolysis process is generated from renewables. In theory, this could create an entirely sustainable cycle. 

However, Green hydrogen only accounts for 0.1 per cent of hydrogen produced globally today, and the lack of a green hydrogen supply was cited by the government as the main reason for abandoning the Redcar experiment. 


Indeed, the UK has its own unique set of challenges. Firstly, hydrogen would have to rely on an already creaking, underfunded gas grid. Making the gas grid ‘hydrogen ready’ would therefore require a huge investment; it would take approximately £177 billion to convert to a hydrogen-ready economy. 

This year made the case for pivoting away from natural gas all too clearly - the future of space heating is electric.

The final unaddressed hole in the pipe for hydrogen is cost. Heating your home with hydrogen will ultimately mean you pay far more per unit of heat than your neighbour who might be using a heat pump or thermal battery. 

This is purely down to the relative system efficiencies of the two energy sources. When Blue hydrogen remains twice the price of natural gas, (and green hydrogen far more) many would not see hydrogen as ‘progress’ when their bill hits the letterbox.

The issue of cost remains one of hydrogen’s key sticking points, not only for the consumer, but for the government. The electricity grid will also need major upgrades in order to prepare for the wave of electrification. 

If we are to invest in a major infrastructure upgrade, would our efforts not be better aimed at updating the electricity grid, upon which our future relies?


Thankfully with heat, we have two technologies already available that can ride the wave of electrification while supporting the electricity grid. The ultra-high efficiency of heat pumps in some homes combined with efficient and enormously flexible thermal batteries in others, will maximise the use of renewable energy and minimise the cost to the electricity system and the taxpayer.

The bottom line is that the future of space heating is electric. 2023 made the case for pivoting away from natural gas all too clearly. Rising global temperatures and poor air quality offer their own, powerful supporting arguments. 

Heat pumps are an example of the type of innovation we need to see if we are to reach our net zero goals. However, Boris Johnson’s original ambition of installing 600,000 heat pumps a year has been far from realised; 72,000 were installed in 2022, around 80 per cent of which were in new homes. 

This is not the fault of heat pumps themselves. Of course, the slow uptake, despite generous subsidies, indicates the fact that while the average cost of a heat pump installation with subsidies is now around £5,000, there are a multitude of other factors that are the real barriers to unlocking this market in the UK. 

It comes down to regulations still incentivising gas use (rather than signposting towards electrification) and policy pointing consumers to a single technology solution (heat pumps). We need regulation to point towards electrification and policy to support consumer choice.


In any other sector there would be no expectation that a single product would work for 100 per cent of the market. We cannot expect every new innovation to work for everyone; not everyone can buy a Tesla, not everyone can install solar panels.

What this does mean however, is as per the recommendations made by the National Infrastructure Report, that the government should take a far more comprehensive’ ‘technology agnostic’ approach to heating.

There clearly is a need for more electric domestic heating solutions. In particular, there is a need for electric heating solutions that either provide huge efficiencies - such as heat pumps - or that provide massive flexibility to the electricity system, to match intermittent generation from renewable technologies, such as thermal heating storage.

The only realistic future for domestic heating is electric - specifically highly efficient or highly flexible electric. Over the next crucial decade, the government, whoever that may be, should ditch the hydrogen red herring, and embrace flexible electric heating providers with the same enthusiasm that has been shown for heat pumps. 

This Author

Johan Du Plessis is chief executive of tepeo, a manufacturer of zero emission boilers.