Campaigners fear loophole will let new homes in England be fitted with gas boilers

Ministers are preparing to allow new houses to continue to be fitted with gas boilers, long after they were supposed to be phased out, campaigners fear.

A loophole being considered for the forthcoming future homes standard, a housing regulation in England intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from newly built homes in line with the net zero target, would allow new homes to be fitted with “hydrogen-ready” boilers.

However, experts have told the Guardian that these are functionally not much different from standard gas boilers. “Hydrogen-ready” boilers can be used with fossil fuel gas, of the kind used by most of the UK’s existing housing stock, and experts fear they are unlikely ever to use hydrogen, as many studies have shown that hydrogen is likely to be too expensive, and face too many technical challenges, to be widely used for home heating.

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This means that stipulating that such “hydrogen-ready” boilers could be fitted in new homes, instead of genuinely low-carbon heating such as heat pumps, would risk tying millions of households into fossil fuel use for the long-term, and imperil the UK’s commitment to reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

Fitting gas boilers, including “hydrogen-ready” boilers, at a cost of about £2,000 each, is cheaper for housing developers than fitting heat pumps, which can cost more than £5,000 for developers to install and £12,000 for households.

A group of more than 40 organisations has written to ministers asking for the potential loophole to be closed. Ministers are to consult on the future homes standard from next month, and it will take effect from 2025.

Juliet Phillips, of the E3G thinktank, who organised the letter, said: “Connecting new built homes to the gas grid, during a gas crisis, is a disaster for energy bills, energy security, and the climate emergency. Experts have repeatedly concluded that hydrogen will not provide a nationwide solution for heat decarbonisation.”

She said: “Hydrogen-ready boilers could act as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, allowing new homes to be connected to the gas grid, with little chance they will be supplied with green hydrogen anytime soon. We encourage the government to instead firmly double down on readily available clean tech solutions such as heat pumps.”

The letter calls on ministers to ensure there are no new connections allowed to the gas grid, under the future homes standard. It notes that heat pumps are an established technology, along with low-carbon heat networks that use a central source such as geothermal heat.

“There is a risk that allowing hydrogen-ready boilers to be installed could create a loophole which would allow new homes to be connected to the gas grid and burn fossil fuels for years to come,” the signatories write. “100% hydrogen for heating is not yet a tried and tested technology, and unlikely to be available for decades, and even then unlikely to be economic as a nationwide solution for domestic heat decarbonisation.”

Signatories to the letter include building societies and investors, such as Nationwide, and Coventry building society; energy companies including E.ON, Octopus and Good Energy; professional bodies including the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Chartered Institute of Housing; trade associations including Energy UK, the UK Green Building Council and Airlines UK; architects; and civil society groups including Friends of the Earth, Positive Money and the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Aviation groups are also concerned about the prospect of using hydrogen for heating, as they fear that there will not be enough “green hydrogen” available for them to use to decarbonise flying.

Matt Gorman, chair of Sustainable Aviation, said: “Hydrogen has a crucial role to play in meeting Jet Zero goals and decarbonising the aviation and transport sector. We encourage the UK government to take a strategic approach to the development and deployment of hydrogen, focusing on the sectors where it presents the most effective pathway to net zero.”

About 14% of the UK’s emissions come from home heating, but there have been few initiatives to reduce this. Insulation and switching people from gas boilers to heat pumps are regarded as the most effective means of reducing emissions, but central government currently has no scheme offering incentives for insulation to most households, and the boiler upgrade scheme for heat pumps has been undersubscribed.