UK Hydrogen Strategy


The UK’s first hydrogen strategy was issued this week. It caused a lot of heated debate.

This is in the context of the latest IPCC Report. Commenting on it Dr Emily Schuckburgh noted in Carbon Brief:

“Ever more certain, ever more detailed. That’s the brief summary I would give the AR6 WG1 summary for policymakers (SPM). Once again it provides a comprehensive chronicle of extreme weather induced by climate change and the risk of catastrophic future impacts. It estimates the remaining carbon budget from 2020 for a reasonable chance (67%) of limiting warming to 1.5C is 400bn tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2). With global emissions in 2020 of 40 GtCO2, this re-emphasises that this decade is critical”.

There is no dispute that hydrogen will play an important role in decarbonising some areas of the economy, especially hard to deal with ones like steel and fertiliser production.

But the report is a little disappointing in sitting on the fence on a number of issues, notably transport and heating, where there is doubt as to the role hydrogen will play. The report says (p. 62):

“Before hydrogen for heating can be considered as a potential option to decarbonise heat in buildings, we need to generate further evidence on the costs, benefits, safety, feasibility, air quality impacts and consumer experience of using low carbon hydrogen for heating relative to other more established heat decarbonisation technologies.”

And (p. 65):

“We recognise that the longer-term role for hydrogen in transport decarbonisation is not yet clear, but it is likely to be most effective in the areas where energy density requirements or duty cycles and refuelling times make it the most suitable low carbon energy source. 

But despite these sensible cautionary words, the report goes on to try and give the impression that domestic heat and transport are still in play, given more research. But are they?


In the area of cars, many car manufacturers have halted or are cutting back R&D on hydrogen fuel cell cars. One of the issues is the relative inefficiency compared to Electric Vehicles (EVs), but building out the infrastructure is another concern.

“You won’t see any hydrogen usage in cars,”

said Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess, speaking to the Financial Times, adding that the idea of a big market for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is …

“very optimistic … not even in 10 years, because the physics behind it are so unreasonable,”

For heating, if we were to use ‘Green Hydrogen’ (created via electrolysis using renewables) to heat our homes, it would require nearly 6 times as many wind turbines compared to directly using the electricity to power heat pumps (which harvest ambient energy in the environment, and so are much more efficient) [1]

The Committee on Climate Change rather highlighted this in their 6th Carbon Budget where they state (for their ‘balanced pathway’):

“By 2030 37% of public and commercial heat demand is met by low-carbon sources. Of this low-carbon heat demand 65% is met by heat pumps, 32% district heating and 3% biomass. By 2050 all heat demand is met by low-carbon sources of which 52% is heat pumps, 42% is district heat, 5% is hydrogen boilers and around 1% is new direct electric heating.”

Or as Professor Cebon said in the Financial Times:

“Hydrogen should be used only as a last resort for sectors that have no option to electrify … Directing public funds towards hydrogen in sectors that have  more effective alternaive solutions is a mistake”.

In other news, Octopus Energy will soon be making a major announcement on heat pumps (they have been teasing the market on Twitter), and are expected to offer a much reduced cost for components and services, to provide a mass market offer. If the Government comes through with an up front grant of several thousand pounds for installation of heat pumps (air source), to replace the Renewable Heat Incentive (which expires in March 2022), this could be a game changer (in terms of mass adoption).

It has been a turbulent week for hydrogen. 

Chris Jackson, chair of UK Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Association Chair has stepped down owing to the Government’s continued support for ‘Blue Hydrogen’ (derived from natural gas, and which involves burying a by product, carbon dioxide, using a method called ‘carbon capture and storage’ that has not yet been proven at scale, but is being pushed by fossil fuel companies like Shell). Chris Jackson said:

“I would be betraying future generations by remaining silent on that fact that blue hydrogen is at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use,” 

It feels like the debate over hydrogen will continue, just as it has been for decades, with fossil fuel interests continuing to try to shape the debate in their favour, with arguably far too much influence in policy circles.

In the meantime we need to decarbonise fast, and we don’t have time to waste – just 10 years to put a serious dent in emissions as the IPCC has indicated. Do we really have the time to keep kicking the hydrogen can down the road?

They say the market will decide.

The good news is that for both cars and heating we have electrification solutions (EVs and heat pumps) available, and they are growing in popularity.

Maybe the market already has decided.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2021

Notes

[1] “Hydrogen: A decarbonisation route for heat in buildings?”, LETI, February 2021, https://www.gshp.org.uk/Hydrogen_for_Heating.html

Figure from the above report. For ‘Green Hydrogen’ we would need a factor of 270%/46% more renewables generation to match the heat provided by heat pumps, that is, nearly 6 times as many off-shore wind turbines operating in winter when we need the heat, for example.

. . o o O o o ..
 

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