Dutch heating giant BDR Thermea will install hydrogen boilers in 12 listed buildings in the Netherlands, as part of a domestic heating pilot that will run on 100% H2, the first time this has taken place in detached houses at this scale.

Hydrogen: hype, hope and the hard truths around its role in the energy transition
Will hydrogen be the skeleton key to unlock a carbon-neutral world? Subscribe to the weekly Hydrogen Insight newsletter and get the evidence-based market insight you need for this rapidly evolving global market

The properties are ideal for hydrogen heating because they are too draughty to successfully run a heat pump, BDR said — a position that is disputed by heating experts.

The houses in the Dutch town of Lochem are all historic, “listed” properties built around 1900, with planning restrictions on the alterations that can be made to them.

The boilers, from BDR brand Remeha, will be run on grey hydrogen made from fossil fuels, which will be supplied from a nearby industrial complex and delivered via an existing hydrogen pipeline owned by grid operator Alliander.

Residents will not pay any more for their heating for the duration of the three-year trial, and BDR said it would “provide valuable insights into using the existing gas grid to transport hydrogen to homes”.

“Decarbonising buildings is an urgent imperative, and hydrogen is one of the key technologies to do this, alongside heat networks, all-electric heat pumps and hybrid solutions that twin heat pumps with gas boilers,” said Bertrand Schmitt, chief executive of BDR Thermea.

‘Too draughty for heat pumps’

BDR said that the Lochem properties are not suitable for electric heating solutions because they are older.

“Since they are not as highly insulated as modern buildings, the houses aren’t suitable for an all-electric heat pump,” the company said.

A hydrogen boiler burning green H2 would require about five times more renewable energy to produce the same amount of heat as a heat pump, and at least 32 independent studies have concluded that is a bad idea for large-scale domestic heating.

But gas distributors and boiler makers, fighting to retain their business models, have long argued that heat pumps do not work in poorly insulated buildings or in cold temperatures.

This is despite the fact that heat pump sales continue to soar in cold-climate countries, with 60% of buildings in Norway equipped with heat pumps, and 40% in Sweden and Finland, according to a recent report from the International Energy Agency.

And experts have point out that hydrogen heating will also be affected by heat loss in draughty buildings.

“Your bills will still be high if you are running hydrogen heating in an inefficient building,” Richard Lowes, a senior associate at the Regulatory Assistance Project and research fellow in the University of Exeter's Energy Policy Group, told Hydrogen Insight.

Using hydrogen for heating instead of reducing buildings’ energy inefficiencies is not a long-term solution. “We should be doing energy efficiency anyway,” he warned.

And according to Lowes, heat pumps have already been installed in a number of historic buildings in the UK, even in a Norman church in England.

“It’s easier to run a heat pump in an efficient building but you can use a heat pump in an inefficient building — you just have to design it properly,” Lowes added. “It’s tricky, but it can be done.”

Isoenergy, which installed the heat pump at St Stephen’s Church in Kent, says on its website: “Even though the church had poor insulation levels, as most older churches do, Isoenergy made sure the specified heat pump system was appropriate to provide efficient heating for the church. As with all buildings, there is always a solution to help overcome the barrier of heat loss.”

Several other pilots to trial boilers running on 100% hydrogen have taken place around the world so far, including one in three commercial buildings in Germany, which was launched by BDR Thermea last month.

DNV has been running a 100% hydrogen heating project in a block of flats in Rotterdam since 2019, and UK gas distributor Northern Gas Networks (NGN) is trialling a variety of pure H2 boilers in specially built show homes in northeast England.

NGN and fellow gas distributor Cadent Gas are also vying to deliver the UK’s first hydrogen village, either in Redcar, Yorkshire, or Whitby, Cheshire. However, there is a rebellion brewing in Whitby, where residents have formed a group to campaign against the proposal.