Author: Lauren Foye, Head of Reports at Zero Carbon Academy
This follows the UK government’s plans to ‘kick-start a world-leading hydrogen economy’ set out last August.
UK Government sets out plans for a ‘hydrogen economy.’
As we have seen, the UK government is eager to utilise hydrogen as part of its energy strategy. In August 2021, it set out plans to ‘kick start world-leading hydrogen economy’. At the time of the report’s release, the government found that a UK-wide hydrogen economy could be worth £900 million and create over 9,000 jobs by 2030, potentially rising to 100,000 jobs and worth up to £13 billion by 2050. Further:
“By 2030, hydrogen could play an important role in decarbonising polluting, energy-intensive industries like chemicals, oil refineries, power and heavy transport like shipping, HGV lorries and trains, by helping these sectors move away from fossil fuels. Low-carbon hydrogen provides opportunities for UK companies and workers across our industrial heartlands. With government analysis suggesting that 20-35% of the UK’s energy consumption by 2050 could be hydrogen-based, this new energy source could be critical to meeting our targets of net zero emissions by 2050 and cutting emissions by 78% by 2035 – a view shared by the UK’s independent Climate Change Committee. In the UK, a low-carbon hydrogen economy could deliver emissions savings equivalent to the carbon captured by 700 million trees by 2032 and is a key pillar of capitalising on cleaner energy sources as the UK moves away from fossil fuels.”[i] At the time of the report’s release, Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, was quoted as saying:
“Working with industry, our ambition is for 5GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 for use across the economy. This could produce hydrogen equivalent to the amount of gas consumed by over 3 million households in the UK each year. This new, low carbon hydrogen could help provide cleaner energy to power our economy and everyday lives.”[ii]
While some concerns have been raised about sourcing hydrogen, The UK has announced a ‘twin track’ approach to supporting multiple technologies, including ‘green’ electrolytic and ‘blue’ carbon capture-enabled hydrogen production. The issue is that ‘blue’ hydrogen creates CO2 as a by-product. The UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Association (HFCA) define ‘Blue hydrogen’ as “the process of converting natural gas to hydrogen and CO2, with the CO2 being sent to geological storage sites. Currently, there is no internationally accepted definition of what counts as blue hydrogen, but in the UK, all projects are setting a high bar with >95% CO2 removal from the process being considered a minimum.”[iii] Contrastingly, green hydrogen “is a clean burning fuel that eliminates emissions by using renewable energy to electrolyse water, separating the hydrogen atom within it from its molecular twin oxygen.”[iv]
Hydrogen fuel proposition offers potential for numerous industries and sectors.
As mentioned in the previous segment, there are several proposed use cases for hydrogen, extending across many industries and sectors, ranging from public transport services to shipping and delivery.
Potential Hydrogen Use Cases:
Source: UK HFCA
When looking at the transport sector specifically, a recent UK Hydrogen Council report found that over 95% of the energy used in road transport is fossil fuel-based. Further, when looking at a switch to electric vehicles, they argue that in many regions, energy demand will be hard to cover with locally available renewable electricity: “Thus, we expect that zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) will be powered by a mix of batteries (using electricity) and fuel cells (using hydrogen). BEVs are rapidly becoming more common and are being used in more and more situations. They are the best solution for multiple use cases, especially in passenger transportation.”[v] However, the council argues that Hydrogen has some advantages that make it more suitable for certain scenarios. For example, in areas which see constraints on renewable energy and thus a need for imports, hydrogen can be kept in molecular form until so needed. Furthermore, “hydrogen is well positioned for wherever large amounts of energy are needed for the vehicle performance due to the higher energy storage density of fuel cell systems. This is why we expect adoption both in passenger vehicles and, at a large scale, in commercial vehicles.”[vi]
Hydrogen Council Illustrative example of BEV and Fuel Cell Use Cases
Source: Hydrogen Council
Hydrogen investment grows & pilot schemes emerge.
The UK has seen a range of announcements regarding hydrogen schemes and projects, and many of these relate to the transport sector. In Belfast, for example, zero-emission buses have begun rolling out from the end of March 2022, with almost a quarter of the 100 planned vehicles utilising hydrogen as their energy source. Translink, who operate the vehicles, will have the fourth largest zero-emission fleet in the UK and Ireland, and whilst the hydrogen used is currently ‘Blue’, the company has said it will ultimately use green hydrogen: "At the minute, to get them set up, we've had to use hydrogen from a number of sources, but the plan is for this to be green hydrogen, coming from windfarms. We've one of the largest hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK, at our depot in Newtownabbey." Chris Conway, chief executive of Translink[vii]
There are also larger scale schemes, such as ‘H2 Aberdeen’,[viii] which is currently being implemented by Aberdeen Council to introduce a hydrogen economy in the city region. As part of the initiative, The Aberdeen Hydrogen Strategy was published in 2015 and outlines key actions required over a 10-year period to ensure Aberdeen is a world-class energy hub leading a low carbon economy and is at the forefront of hydrogen technology. At present, the scheme has seen the introduction of hydrogen buses, as well as recent plans to roll out hydrogen-powered refuse lorries. Further, Aberdeen council is partnering with BP to produce a ‘Hydrogen Hub’, which will include the creation of a green hydrogen production facility in the city. Aberdeen City Council leader Jenny Laing previously told the BBC: "This is a huge announcement for Aberdeen; it paves the way for the city to be a world leader in the production of hydrogen-based green fuel and energy. There is tremendous investment potential, and we already have deep-rooted skills and experience in the energy sector to tap into"[ix].
Such schemes are promising for future development and use of hydrogen as a fuel use. While the near-term use cases are very much focused on heavy transport and industry, it is hoped that hydrogen solutions can be further developed for more general use across the wider public, such as in the heating of homes in place of natural gas.
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