Hydrogen, the future of the energy sector?

The back of an engineer in a hard hat and a hi-vis vest talking into a walkie talkie.

The cost of living and the cost of running a business is compelling people to look at their options for ways to reduce their outgoings, with the switch in energy suppliers and the type of energy used featuring on many people’s lists.

It has also been widely reported that our reliance on fossil fuels must change for the good of the environment, which has forced the government to develop a Net Zero strategy.

In this article, we look at one of the main alternatives that is mooted as the ideal long-term replacement to natural gas. Hydrogen.

The 2050 Net Zero strategy and you

From 2025, it will be illegal to install a fossil fuel heating system in a new build home, although hydrogen and or hybrid-ready boilers will be allowed. By 2035, no fossil fuel boilers will be allowed to be installed at all in UK homes. By 2050, fossil fuel boilers will have been completely phased out in the UK, meaning the entire nation will have carbon-friendly alternatives for their heating.

At the time of writing this, the UK’s heating counts for one third of its total greenhouse gas emissions, and some 95% of UK homes rely on natural gas boilers for their heating needs. This makes gas boilers an easy target to focus on to make the biggest impact towards the government’s 2050 Net Zero Strategy and their push for the country to use more renewable energy sources.

What is hydrogen?

Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical element – estimated at 75% of the total mass of the universe - and is a clean alternative to methane, also known as natural gas.

Hydrogen is contained in water, plants, animals, and humans as an element, yet it is scarce as a gas. Hydrogen gas can be produced from natural gas, nuclear power, biogas, and renewable power options such as wind, hydro and solar.

How does hydrogen technology work?

Hydrogen gas boilers for domestic usage are a new technology which has taken a long time to develop. This is primarily due to the volatility of hydrogen gas and the need to ensure safety before this greener technology is installed in the UK’s homes.

The biggest challenge is harnessing hydrogen as a gas on a large scale to safely fuel our homes and businesses for the long-term, because unlike conventional technologies, hydrogen end-use technologies are not yet mature.

Is hydrogen a realistic long-term energy solution?

Yes, but the technology still requires a lot of improvement, as this comment from ScienceDirect explains:

“While hydrogen energy storage systems are technically feasible, they still require large cost reductions to become commercially attractive. A challenge that affects the cost per unit of energy is the low energy efficiency of some of the system components in real-world operating conditions. Due to losses in the conversion and storage processes, hydrogen energy storage systems lose anywhere between 60 and 85% of the incoming electricity with current technology. However, there are currently very few alternatives for long-term storage of electricity in power systems so the interest in hydrogen for this application remains high from both industry and academia.” Sciencedirect.com

The good news about hydrogen is that it is already being used as a fuel, so we know we can work with it. It can also travel through gas pipelines, which minimises any potential disruption, while also reducing the need for an expensive new network.

However, for hydrogen to be a viable alternative to methane (natural gas) it would need to be produced at scale, economically and the current fuel infrastructure needs to be adapted.

How could the switch away from natural gas affect small businesses?

Between now and 2050, the swap from traditional gas boiler to a greener alternative with a lower carbon footprint is going to cost money.

Replacing a boiler can cost anywhere between £1,000 to £7,000 depending on the work that needs to be done. To replace a boiler with a heat pump could cost up to £17,000. That’s a lot to impose on consumers, especially if they are not eligible for financial assistance.

The potential impact on small businesses and domestic consumers poses many questions:

• Could heating bills become more expensive? This could depend on whether a business rents its office space and if the property owner decides to pass on any increased costs to their tenants. If the small business owns the property, then the cost of future hydrogen-based energy bills is yet to become known. However, there could be an expensive outlay to make the switch.

• Will there be any subsidies and funding to change heating systems?  Currently, there are some partial funding initiatives for people to make the change to greener energy sources. Regardless of these, there will be an expense to the owner of the property who is making the switch.

Changing the nations heating systems is going to take time, money, and resources, while answers to questions about costs and the impact on small businesses will become apparent along the way.

How could the switch affect the gas heating engineers?

Heating engineers will be required to install the new hydrogen boilers and to carry out any ongoing maintenance on them.

While the switch to hydrogen may mean that thousands of heating engineers will need to undertake up-to-date training courses, it will help to ensure the futures of many heating engineers.

There are approximately 168,000 gas heating engineers in in the UK. The UK government has said that hydrogen projects could create an extra 9,000 jobs by 2030. Yet, industry experts estimate that the industry will require as many as 250,000 gas engineers to meet the demands of the switch the greener energy. That would mean a 48% increase in the workforce.

Opportunities to retrain for the future green technologies

The gas boiler ban could provide new opportunities for those who haven’t already retrained to do so and become expert fitters of the greener heating technologies.

It’s important to realise that this change is happening. The earlier that gas engineers can retrain, the earlier they’ll be able to take advantage of the new opportunities ahead.

Will my current heating engineer insurance still cover me to work with hydrogen?

If you’re a heating engineer who is upskilling to be able to fit renewable energy sources, including working with hydrogen, then you might want to speak to your insurer. Any change in your circumstances can mean that you need to adjust your business insurance mid-term.

Contact your insurer today to ensure you are covered.

Cover starting from £8 a month