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Will hydrogen help keep the lights on or is it a costly detour from net zero?

"Green hydrogen" is still not viable at the scale its advocates say is needed.

By Samir Jeraj

In the wake of the invasion of Ukraine and the spiralling cost of energy, the path to net zero has taken some twists and turns, with long-held policies abandoned and energy security rising up the agenda. Earlier this week, the Scottish affairs committee questioned representatives from industry about what role hydrogen could play in the transition to net zero and the UK’s Hydrogen Strategy.

How will hydrogen affect the UK’s transition to net zero?

“Green hydrogen” is produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity from renewable sources. “Blue hydrogen” is the same process but powered by gas, and the resulting carbon dioxide is stored underground in geological features (in a process known as carbon capture and storage). While Germany is looking exclusively at green hydrogen, the UK has a “twin-track” approach of green and blue hydrogen.

The argument is that hydrogen can play a role in transitioning the energy sector to net zero carbon emissions, supplementing and potentially replacing gas in energy-intensive sectors such as domestic heat and industry while renewable technologies are developed. It also could have a role as a means of storing excess energy from renewables for later use, and hence improve the resilience of the system.

Industry representatives told the committee that much of the UK’s existing infrastructure for gas, such as pipelines, could be repurposed for hydrogen, reducing costs.

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What do the critics say?

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Concerns have been raised as to whether moving to hydrogen will “lock in” dependence on fossil fuels, particularly blue hydrogen. Friends of the Earth Scotland estimated that replacing gas with blue hydrogen would mean six to eight million tonnes of carbon being emitted each year.

The UK government made a push on heat pumps at the end of 2021, widely seen as a move towards prioritising them over hydrogen.

Do UK policies go far enough to deliver hydrogen power?

Clare Jackson, chief executive at trade association Hydrogen UK, told the committee that there has been a detailed focus on “the policies that we need to put in place to stimulate and support production”. She said that now needs to happen for “different, distinct end-use sectors”, which means putting in place policies and regulations to stimulate demand and to unlock investment in the technology.

Jackson also observed that the potential for exporting hydrogen was limited. “The policies that the government have put in place support only domestic hydrogen production that will be used domestically; we will not subsidise the use of hydrogen elsewhere, even if it is produced in the UK,” she said.

“It is the policy framework and the tracks that at the moment are controlling the pace of deployment of blue hydrogen,” said Bethan Vasey, energy transition manager at Shell UK Upstream. She added that blue hydrogen, from a technology perspective, is “ready for deployment at scale now” and that several large units are operational worldwide.  

What else was discussed at the committee hearing?

MPs quizzed industry representatives about energy security, with Vasey assuring them that hydrogen “can reduce reliance on imports and potentially even create the opportunity for exports and a trade surplus”. However, she noted, that is going to require the “unlocking of a transport and storage system”.

Skills were also a topic of interest. With over 200,000 people currently working in oil and gas, parliamentarians were keen to understand how they are going to be switched over to hydrogen and renewables jobs. Will Webster, energy policy manager at trade body Offshore Energies UK, pointed to the importance of the Deal Delivery Group – where government and industry meet regularly – to ensuring workers are transitioned into new jobs. “If we need something from government in any area, including on the workforce side or the supply chain, that [Deal Delivery Group] is a vehicle for having that discussion,” he explained. 

Where can I go to learn more?

Read the UK’s Hydrogen Strategy published in 2021

Read the Energy Security Strategy published in 2022

Read our feature on Why the Energy Security Strategy won’t control soaring household bills

Read our feature on The UK home decarbonisation debate: heat pumps versus hydrogen

[See also: Climate change: In a drying world can humans learn to adapt?]

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