It’s time to talk to your neighbours about heating

If you are a domestic gas customer, are you interested in using hydrogen or a heat pump instead? Will your neighbours give you the choice?

You may have noticed that the debate over how to replace carbon emissions has reached your kitchen. Our current reliance on gas for domestic heating is damaging the climate and it has to be replaced. That may be with a different gas such as hydrogen in your pipes instead of natural gas. It may be as part of a heat network with hot water pushed from an external source to you and your neighbours. You may have heat via a highly-efficient electrical heat pump – in your own property or serving several.
You can be an enthusiast or a sceptic for any of these options. But you are unlikely to get a free choice – and your choice will at least partly be determined by your neighbours.
Why is that? It’s because all these options require you to be on a network and some networks are more future-proof than others.
There has been a lot of discussion about the need to upgrade the electricity grid to manage charging for electric vehicles, but rolling out heat pumps also starts to test the grid capacity (although both are also useful in contributing flexibility). So the heat pump rollout will increase the pressure to upgrade the electricity network.
Nevertheless, for most property owners installing a heat pump is your own decision.
What about the hydrogen option? On a domestic scale this has to be undertaken for a group of properties that are all on the same section of the gas network, that can be sectioned off and the hydrogen can be injected. This is all or nothing: all the gas customers will switch to hydrogen.
This is where it is important to know what your neighbours think. If everyone is an enthusiast, that works. What if they are not?
Some may object to the change and want to retain the gas. Others would no doubt rather take a different route, like a heat pump (full disclosure, I had a heat pump installed this year). The latter decision can be taken independently of your neighbours. The former cannot.
In among its Green Day announcements the government promised to extend its Boiler Upgrade scheme to 2028, and it still has a target to install 600,000 heat pumps per year.
Where will they be? This has important implications.
A rash of heat pumps in one area (as happened with PV, when neighbours followed each other to install it) will make the gas grid look less favourable for hydrogen conversion. So how many hydrogen refuseniks does it take to make it uneconomic to convert a section of the gas network to hydrogen? A quarter? A half? What if you want to retain your gas and there are relatively few users on your branch of the gas network – who pays to maintain that connection – and the gas in the pipes?
There are many other issues to consider. Heat pump users may still use gas for cooking, for example. Domestic hydrogen conversion looks most attractive near industrial clusters that will be using hydrogen for other purposes. But what if they are also the areas where heat pumps are most popular? Will area-based decisions be robust over years, if individuals start installing heat pumps?
What about parts of the network that also serve the gas engines that provide power at peak times?
Energy networks are opening up their data so third parties can use it and it is time to begin feeding information to customers about what their options are likely to be. At this point, interested parties should be able to find out about the layout of the gas and electricity networks and where the junctions are, so they can take a view over their local branch and its likely future. That should extend to consumers (via third parties that can be trusted and maintain security against external threats, such as local authorities or the network themselves).
Electricity bills include a letter code that comes into play if it is necessary to impose rolling power cuts. In that event you can see when you (or your vulnerable relatives) will be off supply. That’s information that will be needed for the short term, in a power emergency. Something similar will eventually be needed so people can take informed decisions if and when they are making decisions about heat. That’s information that is needed for the long term, in a climate emergency.