Last month the government published its Hydrogen Sector Development Action Plan. But no single technology is going to solve all our problems. So where does hydrogen fit in the mix?
Every energy technology has its own strengths and disadvantages. Although renewable technologies now account for 45% of our annual electricity consumption, solar and wind only work when the sun shines and the wind blows, and we are a long way from having batteries which can even out these peaks and troughs on any scale.
So we will continue to need other “baseload” technologies, available at any time. But all have disadvantages: nuclear is expensive to build and maintain. Tidal is reliable but again expensive to build, and with complex environmental impacts. Hydroelectricity is reliable, but only in places with mountains. Coal, gas and oil all have costs in carbon output, and global political instability makes the price and supply uncertain.
Although it is volatile, requiring careful storage and transport, hydrogen has some major advantages:
- since it is the most abundant element in the universe, it is potentially available everywhere, in unlimited quantities.
- using it produces no carbon, only energy and water.
- it can be used to store energy, to compete with batteries.
In response, last year, the UK became one of 26 countries with published strategies for the development of hydrogen.
Hydrogen is not always “green”
Although using hydrogen is entirely carbon free, creating it is not. How much carbon it generates depends on how it is produced. Broadly there are three processes, known as “green”, “grey” and “blue”.
- Grey hydrogen is created by breaking down natural gas, methane or other fossil fuels. But the by-products are CO2 and Carbon Monoxide, making grey hydrogen only slightly less damaging than fossil fuels, and at present, over 90% of the hydrogen in domestic and industrial use is grey.
- Blue hydrogen captures the carbon created by the grey hydrogen process. This releases much less carbon into the atmosphere, but it is not entirely carbon free, and carbon capture technologies are still developing.
- Green hydrogen is different. It is produced by passing an electric current through water (electrolysis). The only by-product is oxygen, which can also be used, or released harmlessly into the air.
Hydrogen has broadly two uses. Perhaps the most promising is as an energy store. Although battery technologies are evolving, they are a long way from being able to store large quantities. So when the wind blows, wind turbines have to be switched off if there is no demand for the electricity. However, if that surplus is used to create green hydrogen, it can be stored and used to generate electricity at peak times. This is potentially much less expensive and environmentally damaging than building large conventional batteries, and there is plenty of experience of storing hydrogen at a large scale.
Hydrogen storage also works for electric vehicles. Here the hydrogen is used in fuel cells to generate electricity, which in turn powers the vehicle, and critically it is much faster than electricity to refuel. However, distribution is a problem. Although there are hydrogen cars on the road, they require a reliable nationwide network of service stations. Creating such a network of charging points for electric cars is proving a challenge. Doing so with hydrogen would be a far greater one.
The distribution equation is different for commercial vehicles and trains, which regularly return to a base where storage tanks can be used for refuelling. London now has 20 hydrogen powered buses, and Essex-based Tevva Motors already operate hydrogen powered HGVs. This month, one firm announced plans to create 800 hydrogen pumps across the North of England by 2027. Hydrogen trains are running in Germany, with the advantage of not requiring overhead power lines.
Similar economics apply to hydrogen as a fuel for shipping : the most polluting form of transport. The first hydrogen powered ferry began operating in Norway last year, with plans for much larger ones by 2025.
Research is under way into the use of hydrogen in aircraft, with several manufacturers working on pilots. The first successful flight of a four-seater hydrogen powered aircraft took place in Germany in 2021. Last year, the EU launched its Alliance for Zero Emission Aviation, bringing stakeholders together, with the ambition to produce 26,000 hydrogen powered aircraft by 2050.
The second use for hydrogen is for burning, like natural gas or petrol, leaving nothing but water vapour behind. This is green and simple, but transporting it is difficult because in its pure form it requires special pipework. For that reason, the UK plans to add 20% hydrogen to domestic gas supplies within the next decade, with the possibility of 100% hydrogen somewhere in the 2040s. This will gradually reduce the amount of carbon generated by domestic boilers.
Hydrogen is already being burned in a purer form in some industrial processes, where less pipework is required, and heavy industry is a promising area for hydrogen use. This includes power stations, and industries like steelmaking and cement manufacture which are among the biggest generators of carbon. Hydrogen is a key component in British Steel’s plans to reach net zero by 2050 and Volvo is already replacing coking coal with hydrogen in steel manufacturing.
The way forward
So hydrogen certainly has a role in the energy mix of the future, as a form of energy storage for the grid and for vehicles, and as fuel in heavy polluting industries. In the short to medium term, it seems less likely to play a direct role in domestic uses.
The government’s aim is that, the UK will become a global leader in hydrogen technologies and production, with 1 GW of low carbon hydrogen production by 2025, and 5GW capacity by 2030. It hopes that this will enable economic growth for the UK without increasing carbon emissions. The technological possibilities are changing, and recent economic and political developments make it clear that energy self-sufficiency must be a priority for the country.
But if this is to make a real contribution to net zero, we need to find ways of replacing grey hydrogen with blue or green. Only then will hydrogen be really contributing to net zero.
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