Energy companies aren’t known for unity.
But even by industry standards, disagreements over how to heat Britain’s homes in future are especially ill-tempered. Worse still, they threaten to send efforts to cut UK emissions damagingly off course.
Fierce arguments over whether the UK should replace the natural gas boilers that currently heat the majority of homes with hydrogen appliances or electric heat pumps are often played out in front of parliamentary committees and on Twitter.
More recently, though, they have spilled out into the real world and into the villages of Whitby in Cheshire, and Redcar in the north-east of England, where up to 2,000 houses could be involved in a low-carbon hydrogen heating trial.
Information wars are to be expected in industries where there are multiple competing interests. But the polarised debate is proving to have at least one significant downside: reinforcing the status quo.
Over the past 10 months, gas infrastructure company Cadent has been trying to persuade villagers in Whitby outside Ellesmere Port to relinquish their natural gas boilers for appliances that run entirely on low-carbon hydrogen.
Whitby is vying with another scheme in Redcar, led by Northern Gas Networks, as the location for a government-backed hydrogen heating trial starting in 2025. Final plans were submitted to the government in recent weeks. A decision is due in September.
There is a lot at stake for utilities in the heating debate.
Some infrastructure groups such as National Grid have been reducing their exposure to gas, instead betting on electrification. Suppliers such as Octopus have been developing heat pumps, but other big infrastructure investors such as Macquarie, backer of Cadent, believe hydrogen will be important in the shift away from fossil fuels.
Hydrogen supporters argue existing gas pipes to homes and businesses could be used to make the switch to hydrogen boilers relatively easily. Use of the gas is strongly opposed by a number of academics and green groups, however, who question its safety in domestic settings as well as its higher costs.
Low-carbon hydrogen can be produced either through the electrolysis of water using renewable power, or from natural gas with associated carbon dioxide captured and sequestered.
The consultation processes over the village trials have been fraught, generating headlines such as residents feeling like “lab rats”.
In recent weeks Cadent dramatically revised plans for the Whitby scheme, admitting there had been a “broad church of opinions”. Residents will now be able to opt out and keep their natural gas boilers if their area is selected. Under the initial plan, they would have been compelled to switch either to hydrogen, or vaguer “electric alternatives”.
The choice is a victory for those Whitby residents who justifiably felt aggrieved at forced participation.
But the case reflects a wider difficulty in persuading property owners and businesses to move away from natural gas. A survey of 4,000 adults last year by British Gas-owner Centrica highlighted that of those who currently had a natural gas or oil-fired boiler, 37 per cent said they would replace it with a similar model. Only 14 per cent said they would opt for a heat pump and 6 per cent a hydrogen boiler. The remainder didn’t know.
Only 50,000 heat pumps were installed in 2021, well short of a government target of 600,000 installations annually by 2028. Jan Rosenow from the Regulatory Assistance Project, a non-profit advisory, says a lot of “misinformation” is spread about the suitability for heat pumps for certain properties. Industry bodies say installers are also reluctant to switch while consumer uncertainty reigns.
Tom Baxter, a visiting professor in chemical and process engineering at the University of Strathclyde, argues for independent advice for homeowners to sidestep the information wars. “You can’t rely on vested interests to give a balanced view,” he said.
Others insist clearer direction must come from the top. “The government’s messaging on this has been pretty mixed so far,” said Jess Ralston, head of energy at the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit.
In its most recent energy strategy last month, the government said “people’s homes will be heated by British electricity, not imported gas”. Yet it also suggested hydrogen “potentially” had a use in heating.
It may be that one technology dominates and others are used on a smaller scale. But conflicting signals and corporate information wars are currently holding back progress in any one.