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UK ministers have scrapped plans to use the town of Whitby near Liverpool as a testing ground for hydrogen in domestic heating following objections from residents, in a sign of the difficulties involved in decarbonising homes.
Lord Martin Callanan, energy efficiency minister, said on Twitter on Monday that “there was not strong local support” in the town for the proposed trial, in which hydrogen would have replaced natural gas in up to 2,000 homes for two years.
The controversy around the project — which was first put forward in 2021 — highlights the challenge faced by the government as it tries to strip carbon emissions out of domestic heating on the path to net zero emissions across the economy by 2050.
It is also a blow to the prospects of hydrogen being used extensively to heat homes, although the government said it was still looking at launching a trial in Redcar, Teesside.
Justin Madders, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, said local people had “had enough” and that lessons should be learned from the U-turn.
“It is clear that asking people to try experimental new forms of energy consumption for their homes will not work unless basic questions about safety, efficacy and cost can be answered from the start,” said Madders.
Residents objected to the upheaval caused by the installation of hydrogen boilers and the potential costs once the trial was over, and questioned the technology’s long-term role.
Decarbonising home heating is one of the hardest tasks facing ministers as they seek to meet their legally binding target by mid-century.
Last month, the government’s independent climate advisers said it was making “worryingly slow” progress on cutting carbon emissions and warned of a “lack of strategic direction” around home heating.
The vast majority of British homes use natural gas boilers; replacing these is costly and complicated for homeowners and alternatives are still being developed. In Germany, plans to ban new gas boilers from January next year have come under fire, highlighting the difficulties around fostering changes in household behaviour.
Since hydrogen does not emit carbon when burnt, it is being considered as a replacement to natural gas, making use of existing pipelines for the hydrocarbon.
Its suitability is fiercely contested, however, with critics saying that hydrogen is an expensive distraction whose use should be limited to industrial applications.
The government has said it will make a decision on hydrogen’s role in home heating by 2026, and in July last year it invited gas distribution companies to set up a large trial.
Both Whitby in Cheshire and Redcar in North Yorkshire were identified as potential areas, but the proposed Whitby trial immediately ran into objections.
The original plans offered residents the choice between hydrogen or electric heating, raising complaints that residents were being forced to pick uncertain or potentially more expensive technology.
Energy groups Cadent Gas and British Gas, which were behind the proposed Whitby trial, eventually agreed to allow residents to opt out and retain natural gas, but concerns remained.
Cadent Gas said on Tuesday that it had been told that it was “not the preferred option” for the trial, noting: “We understand that this means that the government is likely to progress the trial in Redcar rather than in Whitby.”
“We know that this will be disappointing to the many residents who told us they wanted their community to play a pioneering role in decarbonising how we heat our homes in the UK,” it added.
British Gas declined to comment.
The trial in Redcar is being run by Northern Gas Networks. It is also facing opposition from some residents, however. NGN said it had “completed over 10 months of consultation in Redcar, including an independent survey which found 95% of residents and landlords felt positive or were neutral” about the trial.
The company added that it continued to “actively encourage anyone with questions” to come forward.
The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said it had “always said” it would not “force these trials on communities without their support”.