UCL Energy Institute


Blog: It's time for a new debate about low-carbon heating

22 May 2014


Most people in the UK heat their homes using boilers powered by natural gas, but this cannot continue in the long term if the 2050 target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% is to be achieved.

The UK government published a heat strategy in 2013 and has a Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) for both non-residential and now residential buildings. The RHI provides subsidies to low-carbon heat technologies with the aim of creating new markets and fostering supply chains. The list of supported technologies – heat pumps, biomass boilers and solar thermal – is symptomatic of the narrow view of low-carbon heat that has prevailed in the UK in recent years.

A new report has just been launched that challenges this orthodoxy. This report examines the potential for fuel cells and hydrogen to contribute to secure, low-carbon heating in the UK. Fuel cells are already being used around the world for heating; although they have mainly been viewed as a low-carbon option for cars in the UK, more commercial fuel cells have been sold for heating than for any other application. In Japan, for example, sales of residential fuel cells have doubled every year for the last 10 years. The costs of fuel cells have greatly reduced in recent years and they will be sold without subsidies in Japan from 2015.

In the long term, hydrogen could be piped to homes and businesses as a low-carbon alternative to natural gas. Hydrogen could replace natural gas in condensing boilers, as well as powering fuel cells, and would avoid some of the disadvantages of alternative technologies such as heat pumps, which have high capital costs, poor performance if installed or operated badly, and require much space in houses.

Hydrogen can be produced from numerous fuels, reducing the reliance of the UK on natural gas from unstable regions of the world. Meanwhile, fuel cells generate decentralised electricity and can continue to work even during blackouts. Fuel cells could also reduce the costs of energy in the future if heat pumps and battery-powered cars become widespread, by generating electricity at peak times and reducing the need for back-up centralised electricity generation.

Despite these potential benefits, hydrogen and fuel cells have generally been excluded or marginalised in heat technology assessments and government policy papers, where the analysis has focused on the small portfolio of technologies listed above and district heating. Most UK-focused modelling studies that have supported these papers have also not considered hydrogen and fuel cells.

No low-carbon technologies will be successful without government support in the early stages of development. Policies addressing market failures for low-carbon heat technologies do not generally extend to hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, despite fuel cells being successfully supported towards commercial maturity abroad. Yet the UK has an opportunity to develop a hydrogen and fuel cell industry for heating; it has a strong scientific base in hydrogen and fuel cell research, and support at home would enable UK companies to capture a share of fast-growing global supply chains for hydrogen and fuel cell heating technologies.

UK homes and businesses could be heated using fuel cells and hydrogen in the future, while simultaneously generating their own decentralised electricity. It’s time for a new debate on low-carbon heating that takes a more inclusive approach to and provides a level playing field for all low-carbon heat technologies.

Blog by Paul Dodds, Research Associate in Energy Systems Modelling, UCL Energy Institute