Hydrogen is not “practically or economically viable” for widespread use in either domestic heating or passenger vehicles in the short or medium term, an influential committee of legislators has told the UK government — calling on them to prioritise support for hydrogen in areas where it has a “genuine prospect” of deployment.

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This is because the use of H2 in both sectors face significant cost barriers as well as technical and infrastructure challenges, members of Parliament (MPs) on the UK’s Science and Technology Select Committee said in a new report The role of hydrogen in achieving Net Zero, unveiled yesterday.

Moreover, they expressed doubt that hydrogen will be readily available or cost effective by 2026, when London plans to bring in regulations mandating that all new domestic boilers must be hydrogen-ready.

“Hydrogen could play a role in domestic heating, but the extent of its potential is still uncertain and looks likely to be limited,” said the report from the cross-party MPs, adding that it remains "unconvinced" by the case for widespread H2 in domestic heating.

In addition, passenger vehicles will struggle to overcome the “unassailable lead” established by battery electric vehicles (BEVs), the Select Committee said, adding that hydrogen will play "at most, a small part in decarbonising passenger cars".

Overall, hydrogen can find a “big niche” in decarbonising the UK, the MPs said, especially in industrial and chemical processes, parts of the rail network and some parts of shipping and aviation.

But they warned against viewing hydrogen as a “panacea”, noting that it will most likely play a “specific, limited” role.

And the UK’s continued support for blue hydrogen made with fossil gas and carbon capture and storage (CCS) should be conditional on standard carbon capture rates reaching 95% by 2030 and in excess of 99% “well in advance of 2050”.

The HyNet blue hydrogen project, in north west England is targeting a 97% carbon capture rate from the outset, if it comes on line as planned in 2026. However, capture rates at CCS projects elsewhere in the world have fallen far short of this level.

In a report that chastised prime minister Rishi Sunak’s government for failing to make clear its priorities on hydrogen across different sectors, the MPs urged policymakers to focus on the areas where H2 is most viable.

“The government should prioritise the use of hydrogen in those sectors where there is a genuine prospect of technical, feasible and economically viable deployment,” the MP’s report read. “The government should work closely with businesses and international partners to set, in the 2020s, a realistic strategy for the adoption and use of hydrogen in these sectors.”

The UK government, which has said it will make a decision in 2026 on whether hydrogen should be used in domestic heating, now has two months to respond to the report.

Dual system?

Gas distribution companies, dependent on being able to move gases around in their infrastructure, have been working hard to promote hydrogen in domestic heating, despite 32 independent studies finding that H2 would cost up to five times’ more than a heat pump, as well as being less sustainable.

Trade association Hydrogen UK, which represents gas distribution companies involved in hydrogen among others, continued to bang the drum for hydrogen heating, despite the Select Committee's conclusions.

But Hydrogen UK chief executive Clare Jackson, who said the group wanted to explore all the options available to decarbonise, appeared to accept the report's premise that H2 might not reach all corners of net zero.

"Personally I’m excited by the art of the possible when it comes to hydrogen but I’m also aware that it’s not the answer to everything," she said in a LinkedIn post responding to the report.

Representatives from gas distribution companies, including Cadent and Scottish Gas Networks (SGN), both gave evidence to the Select Committee, as did an an independent expert from the Hydrogen Science Coalition, alongside a host of utilities, regulators, financiers, government advisors and power grid operators.

Proponents of hydrogen heating often point to the steep upfront costs of a heat pump — often in the range of £10,000 ($12,173) — compared to a hydrogen boiler, which is around a fifth of the price. But running a hydrogen boiler could cost around double running a heat pump, according to one academic witness called by the committee.

French utility EDF advocated for a mixed strategy with hydrogen used in certain regions, warning the committee in its testimony that complete electrification of heating would be “challenging in terms of the scale of network and generating capacity which would be required”, especially as UK peak demand is significantly higher than average demand.

Hydrogen project director at National Grid, Anthony Green, also noted that the gas network in the UK currently transports three times the energy of electricity networks.

But among the alarms raised by committee members is the lack of clarity around whether existing smart meters will be compatible with hydrogen — and how much it would cost to replace them if they are not.

Others raised concerns about the risk of parallel hydrogen and electric systems trapping people in fuel poverty, in which just a few people end up paying more for hydrogen fuel and the cost of maintaining its infrastructure — a risk acknowledged by Green.

The response from UK consumer to hydrogen heating trials has also been less than positive, with a rebellion brewing at Cadent's proposed H2 heating trial in Whitby, northwest England, and another trial in Fife, Scotland, failing to attract a significant number of volunteers.

UPDATED: epithet for independent expert from the Hydrogen Science Coalition, who gave evidence to the Select Committee