Climate change: How Scotland is carrying out world-leading research on the practical use of hydrogen boilers – Alan Brown MP

In November, the eyes of the world will be on Scotland as Glasgow hosts the United Nation’s Cop26 summit, where world leaders will discuss the actions we can all take to tackle the climate emergency.

An old central heating boiler side-by-side with a hydrogen boiler (Picture: Sem van der Wal/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)
An old central heating boiler side-by-side with a hydrogen boiler (Picture: Sem van der Wal/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

We should take pride in the fact that Scotland has already led the world by setting a target date for net-zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045. Put simply, our contribution to climate change will end, definitively, within one generation.

However, the challenge of meeting our commitments is about to become very real as we begin to make decisions about how we heat our homes in the future.

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For example, we have 23 million households across the UK who rely upon a safe and affordable supply of gas to their homes. In the future, we will need to find a way of maintaining this level of service while decarbonising heat, which outlines the scale of the challenge we face.

The Scottish government has taken decisive action and earlier this year, published a draft Heat and Buildings Strategy committing to having over one million homes converted to using zero or low-emissions heating systems by 2030.

While the UK has committed to reach net zero by 2050, the Conservative government in Westminster has dithered and failed to specify how homes are going to be heated in the future. With time running out, the time for action is now.

The failure of the UK government has been laid bare by its independent advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), who have been critical of the way historical climate promises have not been followed up by delivery.

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The CCC wants the UK government to kick-start heat pump and heat network supply chains and clarify the role for hydrogen. These are critical decision points that are essential to delivering a mosaic of cost-effective and customer-focused heating solutions.

While heat pump technology is available now, for many customers in Scotland and across the UK, a repurposed gas network supplying hydrogen to homes could be a viable solution and industry is making positive strides to make this happen.

This is essential as many homes are likely to be unsuitable for a heat pump without the installation of highly disruptive, costly and intrusive measures such as solid-wall insulation.

Inside the home, hydrogen will require no major home modifications and customers could upgrade to a hydrogen-ready boiler when their boiler reaches the end of its natural life. Installation could tie into the yearly replacement of 1.6 million gas boilers that takes place in the UK.

Manufacturers developing the technology suggest that hydrogen-ready boilers will be £50 more expensive than gas boilers. As per the CCC’s recommendation, policymakers in Westminster should mandate the sale of hydrogen-ready boilers as soon as practicable to help our transition away from gas. More generally, the Westminster government, and wider parties, must start sharing in the SNP’s enthusiasm for this game-changing technology.

Outside of the home, Scotland’s gas network is already two-thirds of the way through a programme to replace old metal pipes with hydrogen-ready plastic piping. By 2032, the gas network will be fully hydrogen ready.

Networks and appliance manufacturers have also been undertaking a series of projects to test how hydrogen behaves in a variety of different settings and environments. These projects have shown that using our gas grid to transport hydrogen to homes is fundamentally safe.

One of these projects, H100 Fife, will for the first time anywhere in the world supply 300 customers with 100 per cent green hydrogen for heating, offering a vision of how we heat our homes in the future.

The project will give people in Fife the opportunity to be at the forefront of research into hydrogen-heating systems. When it comes to the tackling climate emergency, Scotland is setting a blueprint for the rest of the world to follow.

While we can be proud of the action we have taken in Scotland to deal with climate change, the next decade is a crucial juncture in our journey to net zero where we must ensure customers are part of the journey.

We do not want to see customers left with unaffordable costs to heat their homes in the future and the type of technology used – whether hydrogen or a heat pump – is not as important as building public trust and choice about the solution that is most suitable for each home.

Therefore, policy decisions will need to reflect the types of properties and needs customers have right across the country. To get the energy transition right, we need to level with customers about the changes that are going to need to happen and offer solutions that work best for them.

Thanks to the decisive action taken by the Scottish government, we are on a pathway to decarbonising our homes and reaching net zero by 2045.

Policymakers in Westminster need to stop playing catch-up and should focus on taking decisive action now.

As a start, they should kick-start investment in the supply chain for low-carbon technologies, to drive down costs and accelerate conversion to net-zero solutions.

On hydrogen, the UK government should increase the hydrogen-production target to match the ambitions of industry who want to go further. Incredibly, despite hydrogen blending being part of the Prime Minister’s fabled “ten-point plan”, the UK government’s regulations still haven’t been changed to actually allow this to take place, so they are blocking the chance of any technology developments. It is typical of a disjointed approach.

The long-awaited Heat and Buildings Strategy is an opportunity for decisive action and should be grasped if the rest of the UK is to keep pace with the progress we are making for a greener future in Scotland.

Alan Brown is the SNP MP for Kilmarnock and Loudoun

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