Heating homes with clean hydrogen instead of natural gas will be “pretty much impossible”, a British energy minister has admitted.

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“If I’m being honest, the idea that we could produce enough hydrogen at reasonable cost to displace mains gas is pretty much impossible,” said Lord Callanan, parliamentary under-secretary of state for climate change & corporate responsibility at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The UK government is currently investing millions of pounds in studies on hydrogen heating, with £25m ($34m) ploughed into the Hy4Heat programme; a pilot scheme in Scotland to heat 300 homes with 100% hydrogen via the existing gas grid due to take place in 2023, backed by up to £18m of grants from the industry regulator Ofgem; and plans to heat a whole town with H2 by 2030.

The UK national hydrogen strategy, unveiled in August, also includes a public consultation on “enabling, or requiring, new natural gas boilers to be easily convertible to use hydrogen (’hydrogen-ready’) by 2026".

“Hydrogen has the potential to play a key role in decarbonising heat in buildings in the UK,” the strategy states. “We are rapidly delivering major studies and testing work to understand the feasibility of using hydrogen for heating, to inform broader strategic decisions in 2026 on heat decarbonisation.”

The UK’s five gas distributors are lobbying hard to replace the methane in their grids with pure hydrogen, with their Gas Goes Green programme declaring: “We’re creating the world’s first zero carbon gas grid by speeding up the switch from natural gas to hydrogen for the 85% of UK households connected to the gas grid.”

But they may be fighting a losing battle. Electric heat pumps are six times more efficient, meaning that a boiler burning green hydrogen would require six times as much renewable energy as a heat pump to produce the same amount of heat, making it an extremely expensive proposition.

The cost of converting the natural gas grid to run on 100% H2 would also be astronomical, with every compressor and valve on the network needing to replaced, metal pipes switched out with plastic ones (including in people’s homes) to reduce the risk of the far smaller molecule leaking, and three times as much energy required to transport the gas around the grid.

Lord Callanan — who has “clean heat” as one of his portfolio responsibilities ­­— said that a “scientific breakthrough” might enable large amounts of hydrogen to be produced cheaply, “but it’s more likely that [H2] will end up being used by trains and HGVs [heavy goods vehicles], [and] for some industrial processes, rather than for home heating.

“But the official policy is we will see how the market develops and take a view in the mid-part of this decade as to whether it will play a significant role in the home.”