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EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT: Future fuels

EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT: Future fuels

You may have noticed a distinct lack of focus on Brexit in recent months on this page. It’s arguably a little odd to ignore one of the most provocative issues of recent memory in the UK, but considering that I can’t even say if we’ll have left the EU by the publication of this May issue, I think it’s best to continue to abstain from commenting on the topic.

Instead, let’s look at a different contentious debate – that is, the future of heat in the UK. Following the Committee on Climate Change report, the Chancellor decided to broach the subject in his Spring Statement, pledging that natural gas which produces harmful emissions will no longer be used in new build homes from 2025. Yet, very little consensus has been reached about the alternative, and ultimately it’s the UK’s installers that will be most affected, whatever the route taken.

One potential saviour is hydrogen. This is a solution that should produce almost zero direct carbon emissions and one that Leeds is currently preparing to implement for 2030. It also means that for the majority of UK homes, there would be reduced disruption, as the plan would seemingly be to inject it into the current gas grid. Safety concerns, however, include hydrogen’s high combustibility and its lack of ions, meaning the flame is a lot harder for appliances to detect and measure.

There’s also the biomethane option, which is made up of biodegradable matter such as food waste, sewage or suspiciously extra-terrestrial sounding ‘energy crops’ (plants grown specifically to make biofuels). According to statements made at a recent APHC seminar, supported by Worcester Bosch, this alternative is pretty much ready. Cadent Gas, which serves around 11 million homes in England, also states that “we don’t need to make any changes to appliances or the gas network to use biomethane” – which would explain why the organisation is prioritising this as a potential source of renewable heating.

Once again, however, there are drawbacks. These are namely due to ‘siloxanes’ (silicon deposits) produced from biomethane. While these can be cleaned off, it would require a significant change in boiler servicing standards – and that’s a whole different debate for another time.

There’s also the question of heat pumps, hybrid systems, electric, and more… the list goes on. But, what does all this mean for installers? Well training and upskilling is inevitable, with different specialisms potentially needed in different areas of the country. If Leeds turns to hydrogen, and London implemented biomethane, for instance, engineers may need different skillsets for each.

While it may seem like a lot to take in and worry about, is there not an argument to suggest that different specialisms may help the industry improve standards of professionalism? Education will certainly be required, with the question seemingly being when, rather than if, natural gas is to be replaced. The hope would be that such drastic changes to the network, and the skills needed to ensure efficient implementation, will force Gas Safe and other competency schemes to commit even greater levels of emphasis and financial support to standards and safety levels.

Change is always likely to be a disrupter, but often it’s for the best in the long run. For now, natural gas boilers will continue to be the ‘bread and butter’ for engineers, but it’s worth keeping an eye out on developments. At this rate, Leeds might be running on hydrogen before we’ve even left the EU…

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