Five landlords are installing new central heating systems powered by fuel cells in a pilot project designed to kick start the innovative technology in the social housing sector.
Your Housing, Rykneld Homes, Housing 21 and South Essex Homes are all involved in a pilot of the hydrogen fuel cell technology, which produces electricity from natural gas using a chemical process rather than burning it, with heat and water as by-products.
Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council is also trialling the system in a care home.
The pilot will spark fresh hope that the technology can be used by social landlords as a more eco-friendly alternative to gas boilers. It is also cheaper for tenants in the long-run.
It has been six years since the first experimental fuel cell was installed in housing, by Black Country Housing. But that installation failed to spark a wave of take up in social housing of a technology more commonly associated with replacing car engines.
The pilot starts this month and is being run by energy company Spark. It involves a fuel cell technology called Bluegen.
Spark said installing a fuel cell in one home costs £20,000, and it can provide electricity to four homes. Each social landlord is installing two units.
By comparison, external wall insulation costs between £9,000 and £26,000. Rykneld said its fuel cell heating system, installed in sheltered housing as part of the pilot, cost £75,000, but was cheaper than replacing the scheme’s aging gas boilers.
Richard Baines, director of sustainable development at Black Country Housing, said that the technology is still ‘ferociously expensive’ to install compared with a conventional boiler, because it is still at a developmental stage.
However, he added that social landlords should be piloting the technology, ‘because nobody else is going to do it’.
Fuel cells are not eligible for support under the energy company obligation, the main source of funding used by social landlords to pay for green improvements.
Rykneld Homes received a grant to cover half of the £75,000 cost from the National Grid. Fuel cells are also eligible for a subsidy of £13.24p per kilowatt hour under the feed-in tariff.
Neil Wilmer, project manager for energy at Your Housing, which installed a fuel cell in a scheme in Preston, said: ‘It is hoped that the technology will enable us to further reduce the scheme’s energy consumption and protect residents from future rising energy costs.’
Fuel cell technology explained
- A fuel cell uses a chemical reaction to produce electricity. This differs from a conventional boiler or combustion engine, which burns fuel such as oil or natural gas to produce energy
- Each fuel cell has a positive and a negative electrode, an electrolyte that carries particles from one electrode to another and a catalyst that speeds the reaction
- The main fuel is hydrogen – but the cells in this pilot start with natural gas from the mains, first breaking down the methane into its particles to produce hydrogen
- The by-products of that reaction are water and heat. If powered by pure hydrogen, it would be free of polluting greenhouse gas emissions
- Most fuel cells are currently used in cars to replace gas or diesel engines
- Fuel cell developers hope the technology will be used to power everything from mobile phones to cars and ships, from factories to people’s homes
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