Forcing British households to adopt “luxury” heat pumps risks triggering a backlash akin to a rebellion by Germans over the country’s boiler ban, the UK’s biggest gas network operator has warned.
Angela Needle, director of strategy at Cadent Gas, warned that ruling out the option of using hydrogen for heating homes risked leaving consumers with just one option, heat pumps, which remained far too expensive for most households.
She pointed to controversy in Germany over a ban on buying new gas boilers from 2024, dubbed the “heat hammer” by critics, adding: “Heat pumps are a luxury product for folks who’ve got £13,000 in the bank.
“Forcing one solution on everybody will be politically very difficult and I think you’ve seen with Germany, with the heat hammer, that it’s not going to be a vote winner.
“You can see how it’s happening with the off-grid issue at the minute, people being told that from 2026, they can’t have an oil boiler anymore.
“I would argue that the cost of hydrogen will have to come down significantly to be affordable. But I think there’ll be a combination… Just flicking to a binary answer is not going to be helpful.”
She also insisted that hydrogen was a practical option, pointing to tests carried out by Cadent which have looked at using both existing and new gas pipelines to carry hydrogen to homes and found that only “small” changes would be necessary.
Cadent, which serves the North West, West Midlands, East Midlands, East of England and north London, is already undertaking a multibillion-pound programme to replace metal gas pipes with plastic ones that are suitable for carrying hydrogen, subject to approval from the Health and Safety Executive.
Ms Needle said: “We want to be able to use the existing infrastructure that we’ve all paid for, which silently delivers energy all day, every day, without a huge amount of disruption.
“And we do worry that the gas network is being ignored.”
Her comments come after Grant Shapps, the Energy Security Secretary, said he was not convinced that piping hydrogen into millions of British homes, instead of natural gas, was a practical option.
“There was a time when people thought you will just have something that looks like a gas boiler and we’ll feed hydrogen into it,” he said in July.
“The problem is you’d have to replace a lot of piping and we’ve got to produce the green hydrogen to make the whole thing stack up.”
In another blow to companies such as Cadent, which want existing gas infrastructure to be used for hydrogen, ministers have also abandoned a planned hydrogen trial in Whitby following a backlash from residents.
Another trial, in Redcar, may still go ahead but has not yet been confirmed.
Some energy experts have also dismissed hydrogen as an overly expensive solution for residential heating, because of the relatively high energy requirement to produce it and the low efficiency of burning it.
Greg Jackson, the chief executive of Octopus Energy, has compared it to “flushing the toilet with champagne”.
Instead, the Government is urging households to get electrically powered heat pumps, with ministers aiming for 600,000 of the devices to be installed per year by 2028.
However, uptake remains relatively low, with only 33,000 installed last year, largely due to an average cost of £13,000 for installation – a figure that can be reduced by £5,000 with a government grant.
Ms Needle said the setback in Whitby was disappointing but insisted that residents had not only rejected hydrogen boilers but heat pumps as well.
As part of the trial, to join a test hydrogen grid, households would have been disconnected from the mains gas network and either given a hydrogen-burning boiler or a heat pump for free.
Ms Needle said: “Our experience of Whitby was that it wasn’t about hydrogen, it was about change – and consumers didn’t want to change. If it was a heat pump trial, it would probably be the same issue.
“The biggest issue is people just don’t want to be first.”
She urged the Government to provide more clarity to gas operators about the potential future of hydrogen for heating and to consumers about the proposed switch to heat pumps.
She added: “It’s a huge ask of people. And I can understand concerns, because you’re really talking about changing their home.”
Phil Hurley, chief executive of the Heat Pump Association, said the cost of heat pumps would fall over time as demand for them ramped up and more plumbers were trained to install them.
For example, he said the ban on off-grid oil boilers would stimulate sales as well as a ban on installing gas boilers in new-build homes from 2025.
Mr Hurley added: “The reality is that the Government is committed to reducing carbon emissions and at the moment, heat pumps are an established technology that can deliver that.
“Costs are an ongoing challenge and we also need to fix the disparity between the electricity and gas prices.
“But as demand for heat pumps grows, and more [plumbers] are trained, installation costs will come down.”