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Why the UK’s hydrogen strategy does not add up

Using renewable energy to meet the government’s hydrogen target would consume around half of all UK offshore wind.

By Nick Ferris

Last year the government, in response to soaring oil and gas prices, upped its ambitions for the already controversial hydrogen strategy. It announced in April 2022 that it would double the original objective of 5 gigawatts of low-carbon production capacity to 10GW. But meeting this target presents a potentially insurmountable challenge, expert analyses shared with Spotlight suggest, requiring either vast quantities of renewables, or carbon captured at a rate that has never yet been achieved.

Producing 10GW of “green” hydrogen using renewable power would consume renewable electricity equivalent to around 50 per cent of the UK’s planned offshore wind capacity, according to a projection shared with Spotlight, and verified by other experts. Alternatively, producing “blue” hydrogen from natural gas paired with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, would not currently produce “low carbon” fuel, as CCS technology is not yet capable of absorbing sufficient levels of carbon.

“The UK’s hydrogen strategy, in its current form, simply does not add up,” said Arjun Flora, from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). “We are already struggling to meet renewables growth targets and our reliance on fossil gas is crippling the economy. This strategy will make both problems worse, at the expense of UK households and taxpayers.”

Alex Lee, a Friends of the Earth Scotland climate campaigner, described the government’s rush to embrace hydrogen as “foolish”. “Green hydrogen made from renewables is inefficient and more expensive than existing renewable technologies like electric heat pumps for our homes and electrifying public transport systems. Blue hydrogen from fossil fuels is just another oil industry trick to keep us locked into fossil fuels with the promise of dubious carbon capture and storage technology.”

[See also: How to solve the UK’s heat pump problem]

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Green hydrogen is produced when water is electrolysed using renewable electricity sources like solar and wind. Blue hydrogen is produced when natural gas undergoes a process called steam-methane reforming, and the resulting carbon dioxide is then captured and stored.

Factoring in for energy losses, the production of 10GW of green hydrogen would require around 14GW of renewable electricity capacity, according to Nilay Shah, professor of process systems engineering at Imperial College London.

Variable wind speeds mean that, in practice, 14GW of offshore wind will not produce a steady supply of power. Offshore wind capacity factors – which refers to the average output achieved over a year – are improving all the time, but remain at around 30-40 per cent for most farms. Even if we assume a future capacity factor of 60 per cent, that would require some 23GW of offshore wind.

The UK currently has around 14GW of offshore wind, and is aiming for 50GW of offshore wind by 2030 (a target experts are already warning the UK is likely to miss). If the UK meets its 10GW hydrogen ambition with green hydrogen production, the hydrogen production would consume around 50 per cent of offshore wind capacity.

This figure is incompatible with the UK’s target of decarbonising the entire electricity grid by 2035, as it would eat up too much of the power needed to reach that end point. What’s more, an even greater volume of power infrastructure will be required if onshore wind or solar power are involved in green hydrogen production, as these electricity sources have an even lower capacity factor than offshore wind.

[See also: Is Brexit to blame for the UK’s tomato shortage?]

The UK is not, however, aiming for all of the 10GW to come from green hydrogen: the government's energy security strategy states that a maximum of 50 per cent of the new capacity is to come from blue hydrogen. But there are serious doubts whether blue hydrogen can be part of a truly low-carbon energy strategy by 2030. This is because no blue hydrogen projects exist at scale today, while trial projects that currently exist have not managed to capture more than 50 per cent of the carbon dioxide produced. The UK’s definition of “low-carbon hydrogen” is equivalent to around 75 per cent of emissions being captured; but for blue hydrogen to be legitimately low carbon, well over 90 per cent of emissions must be captured.

Analysis shared with Spotlight by Frederick Andre Wessel, from the consultancy Rystad, shows that 5GW of blue hydrogen capacity could produce 1.3 million tonnes of hydrogen annually. For this to be legitimately low carbon, it would in turn likely require more than 10 million tonnes of CO2 to be captured, according to Wessel, which is equivalent to around a quarter of the entire volume of CO2 captured globally by CCS in 2022.

A report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee concurred that “carbon capture… and storage… is currently not deployed at the large scale required to make a material contribution to emissions reduction”, adding that it is “unwise to assume that hydrogen can make a very large contribution to reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions in the short and medium term”.

Even if CCS technology does sufficiently improve, there are concerns over the commercial viability of blue hydrogen, given the continued high gas prices that have been triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. IEEFA warned last May that the UK should reconsider its plans for blue hydrogen given this reality. In September, the government was also warned that UK wholesale gas prices are likely to remain three times higher than in 2021, until at least 2027.

In response to this article, a government spokesperson told Spotlight: “A low-carbon hydrogen sector here in the UK will be critical to delivering energy security, economic growth and our net zero ambitions.

“The UK has a world-leading ambition for 10GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030, which could unlock 12,000 jobs and £9bn in private investment this decade.”

[See also: The end of BEIS: why mixing business and energy didn’t work]

Given the potential inviability of blue hydrogen, and the vast electricity demands of green hydrogen, experts are warning that the government needs to more effectively consider where hydrogen is truly the most cost-effective and energy-efficient option. The government anticipates generating electricity and heating homes with hydrogen, even though experts warn that this represents an inefficient use of energy.

“The clear takeaway is that we must use green hydrogen strategically, ensuring it is deployed where it is most needed – and avoiding its use when there are more efficient pathways to net zero,” Juliet Phillips, of the think tank E3G, told me. “Heating is a clear example: green hydrogen for heating would require around six times the amount of renewable energy as heat pumps.”

Read more:

British Oil's record profits outweigh renewables investment

Meet the renewables installer who is training the next generation

Why Rishi Sunak is complicit in Shell’s “greenwashed” mega-profits

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