Spotlight on: Hydrogen for Heating

Ab van Beek

Andrew Gaved travels to the Netherlands to see how a ‘heat the street’  pilot project offers a potential glimpse of the future for UK heating.

Ab and Evelien van Beek, retired residents of the town of Lochem in eastern Netherlands, might be unlikely global pioneers for the use of hydrogen in heating, but they are in no doubt as to their responsibilities as the earliest adopters of this low carbon heat technology.

For those looking on from the UK, it is nothing less than a glimpse of a potential future, with the zero carbon gas piped into homes, and familiar-looking boilers heating the houses and their water supply.

The Lochem hydrogen pilot is a street’s worth of 12 houses, all over 100 years old, connected to a bespoke hydrogen network. The project, estimated to cost 6-7 million Euros, is a joint venture between network provider Alliander; boiler manufacturer BDR Thermea via its brand Remeha; residents’ energy co-operative LochemEnergie; and utility Westfalen Gassen Nederland.

The enthusiasm of Ab van Beek, as he leads a small group of journalists crawling through the hatch to reach the attic of his Victorian era home, is contagious.

Ab wants us to not only view his Remeha boiler running away on 100% hydrogen, but he wants us to listen to it too, so he turns the shower downstairs so that we can hear how quiet it is. I can report that hydrogen has a distinctive sound – more of a purr under combustion than natural gas – and indeed to this ear at least, it is noticeably quieter.

But lest you think this is all Hydrogen propaganda, Hydroganda, if you will, spending any length of time with Ab soon makes it clear that he knows his own mind. However, simply put, one year into the three year term of the project, everything is working as it should be, most importantly, he has had no issues so far with the boiler or the hydrogen that supplies it.

The sentiment is echoed by another resident of the street, Rob Oostendorp – the house is warm, the radiators are hot and the boiler is doing everything that the previous boiler did. A key benefit, of course, is that the boiler also is controlled and operated in the same way as its natural gas predecessor.

Furthermore, reports Ab, the installation was straightforward, and not disruptive, despite the fact that the house saw a steady stream of the stakeholders, keen to see things come to fruition: “The engineers took one day to install the boiler and meter,” he says, “And although there have been some adjustments to the boiler, they have been simple, thanks to the direct connection with the experts in Italy.”

For the pilot, the Remeha hydrogen boilers are all installed with an internet link that connects directly to the Italian factory where they are built. This move, which somewhat raises the bar for technical helplines, ensures that any requirement for adjustment is quickly picked up and the tweaks made quickly by its developers.

It transpires that the residents of Lochem have pretty noble ideals beyond simply warming their homes – the villagers set up an energy co-operative in order to develop more sustainable energy options for the municipality, as well as to strive for lower bills. The hydrogen pilot, states Ab, is nothing less than an opportunity to benefit the residents’ children and grandchildren with low carbon technology. “We are the first in Europe to have hydrogen” he reminds us proudly.

UK experience

This combination of enthusiasm and willingness to sign up to a longer term vision can only be music to the ears of the other UK folk who are with us on the Lochem trip – who represent Hello Hydrogen, the coalition of gas networks, manufacturers and energy suppliers that was established to raise awareness of the potential for the new technology and, in its own words ‘to start people on their hydrogen journey.’

As most readers will be aware, the hydrogen journey in the UK has not exactly been straightforward and last year hit a bump in the road –  in fact, a sizeable pothole – in the shape of the village of Whitby, Ellesmere Port, where the government elected not to proceed with the proposed village-sized hydrogen heating pilot after ‘listening to the views of residents.’

Talking to Hello Hydrogen campaign director Angela Needle, who as director of strategy for gas distributor Cadent represented the pilot in the town meetings at Whitby, the sense of a huge opportunity lost is clear.

Because whatever your views on the long term merits of hydrogen, which we will come to shortly, this pilot would have offered both gas operators and appliance manufacturers alike an important early insight into the technical feasibility in a real world setting:  “It would have allowed us to test granular elements such as the valves, pressures, real-time delivery and appliances in a domestic setting…Lochem is what the Whitby project should have been,” says Angie with no little regret.

But whereas Lochem’s residents have enthusiastically embraced the chance to pioneer the new technology, a number of residents of Whitby weren’t convinced, apparently swayed by a tide of alarmism even in the face of a cash incentive of a couple of thousand pounds to sign up. There is a distinct feeling that the chance to do something pioneering in Whitby was hijacked by hearsay, myth and social media pile-ons. Hearing firsthand about the strength of feeling at Whitby from– including police having to be called – it is hard to believe that is low carbon heating we are talking about.

But when compared to the residents in Lochem, who appear basically unconcerned at the source of their fuel, the contrast with the Whitby visceral reaction and references to ‘lab rats’ is all the more stark.

Looking at the success achieved by the Lochem pilot by focusing on just one street, it seems clear that for the UK to start with a dozen houses, rather than  the Whitby target of up 2000 houses might have proved easier to achieve, but Angie notes that it was the government that called for thousands of houses, as it sought to test the technology at pace and scale.

In the context of the relative success of government-supported hydrogen development up to that point, Whitby has been a huge disappointment for everyone who believes that hydrogen has a place in heating.

With the Redcar village trial also shelved because the main source of hydrogen production was not available, it means all eyes will now be on the H100 Fife trial being developed at Fife, Scotland as it now looks to becomes the UK’s first ‘neighbourhood’ trial of hydrogen for heating. Networking work on the £32m project is underway by gas distributor SGN and the project is looking to sign up 300 homes for a projected 2025 start.

Hello Hydrogen

Whitby has in many ways upped the ante for those who believe in a hydrogen future. For Hello Hydrogen, the current mission is pretty fundamental – park the Whitby experience, learn from it and concentrate efforts on educating, persuading, myth busting and addressing concerns amongst public and industry alike.

The mission has not been helped by apparent waning of interest in some parts of government. Given that the decision on the use of the gas in homes has been pushed out to 2026, the recent pronouncements by energy minister Lord Callanan, who has told several publications that hydrogen will only play a minor role in domestic heating, have not good been for the optics.

Indeed, the announcements of funding for hydrogen projects in December by energy secretary Claire Coutinho, while underlining the government commitment to hydrogen, was notable for its focus on non-domestic sectors. She said: “Low carbon hydrogen will be crucial for ensuring energy security and achieving net zero. In the process it could help to transform our industrial heartlands, unlocking over 12,000 jobs and up to £11 billion in private investment by 2030 across the UK. It will be needed to decarbonise vital UK industrial sectors and heavy transport, as well as supporting resilience and security for our power system.”

Here at elemental, we are very aware that the weight of coverage of decarbonisation in the last year has also been very much towards electrification, simply because that is where most of the new developments in both policy and technology have happened.

But the Hello Hydrogen argument is simple: if the UK is to be technologically agnostic, then hydrogen should play a role in decarbonising heating, alongside heat networks, heat pumps and in hybrid solutions that combine heat pumps with gas boilers. The group notes recent research commissioned by the European Heating Industry found that having this diverse mix of heating technologies would be the fastest way to cut natural-gas consumption – by 45% by 2030.

“While heat pumps are perfect for well-insulated houses such as newbuilds,” it says, “Hybrids can reduce carbon emissions quickly in less-insulated existing buildings, reducing gas use by up to 79%. In time, the remaining gas use can be cut by using renewable gases, such as green hydrogen…”

Manufacturer Baxi, whose boilers are being used in the Lochem trial is a firm believer in having a mix of technologies too, referring to the four Hs of decarbonising heat: Hydrogen, Heat Networks, Heat Pumps and Hybrids. External affairs and policy director Jeff House succinctly captures the most fundamental benefit of hydrogen heating: “It’s familiar – it looks like a boiler and feels like a boiler and as far as the public is concerned, it is a boiler.”

Before we leave Lochem, Angela Needle takes time to bust a couple of myths: Firstly, the amount of work that will be required to convert the gas network to hydrogen is overstated, she notes: “Already 75% of the network is [hydrogen-compatible] plastic pipe and by 2032, it will be 100%.”

And this feeds into another myth: that hydrogen will be prohibitively expensive to install, because the proponents of electric infrastructure are significantly underestimating the cost to upgrade the electricity network, she adds: “The current capacity is something like a fifth of the gas network, so it would need major expansion to handle the increased use of electric systems – and the electricity network was originally designed to handle lighting, not the complexity of heating systems.”

Fundamentally, she says, there simply won’t be the public appetite for the disruption of decommissioning the entire gas network to facilitate full electric heating. “It simply isn’t a vote winner – in fact it’s probably a vote loser.”

The discussion is set to intensify as the government 2026 decision date gets closer. But one thing is clear – for the residents of Lochem, the hydrogen in their boilers is doing a good job of heating their homes. Ab Van Beek makes the point succinctly: “When I am having a shower, I can’t tell whether it is hydrogen or natural gas. But the water is hot.”

The Lochem trial

The Lochem project is designed to run for three years, after which the participants are free to switch back to natural gas, or – if the hydrogen supply continues – to continue using hydrogen. Participation in the scheme was voluntary and homeowners in the street who were not interested in participating receive natural gas via a new natural gas pipeline.

As this is a pilot project for the heating rather than hydrogen production, the hydrogen is simply fed into the existing gas grid at a nearby industrial zone and arrives via a series of tube trailers. The hydrogen is piped to the homes through existing plastic natural gas pipelines.

Naturally, safety is a key aspect of the pilot and the gas pipelines of participating homeowners were all checked and hydrogen sensors installed near the gas meters. An additional failsafe has been placed in the connecting pipeline to cut off the gas supply should a pipeline in the home break. Like natural gas, an odour has been added to aid leak identification.

The project uses grey hydrogen, which has the most regular supply, to ensure a proof of technology for the hydrogen boilers and gas system, but Alliander has plans in the future to replace this grey hydrogen with green hydrogen.