Does hydrogen fuel have a role in net zero?

Where will hydrogen be implemented in our race to net zero?
01 August 2023

Interview with 

Jess Ralston, ECIU


hydrogen atom


So does hydrogen have any part to play in our renewable future? Jess Ralston is from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

Jess - I think like many things in this increasingly polarised world, I think the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Experts like the International Energy Agency, the Climate Change Committee, National Grid and others all think that hydrogen will be very important for sectors where there are no obvious solutions. For example, as Eugene touched on, heavy industries like steel making for glass, ceramics, those sorts of industries. However, there are solutions already existing for some of the sectors that we've talked about like heat pumps for heating, or electric vehicles. And I hear concerns around electric vehicles, around minerals and whatnot. But already in the UK, one in three cars sold in December was electric. So we are already seeing electric vehicles become the predominant technology for decarbonising our road transport. And I think the really key point that we might have missed in the programme so far is that we're not going to have an unlimited supply of hydrogen. We're not going to have enough to decarbonise this industry, that industry, the other industry is going to have to be strategically deployed so that it's deployed in the industries that need it most. Which are those that are hard to decarbonise like steel.

Chris - Yes. I think Phil Broadwith said quite poignantly at the beginning of the program that we don't have enough renewable sources in capacity terms of green electricity to make enough green hydrogen in order to just heat people's homes, let alone feed industry.

Jess - Exactly. And there's real questions about whether there's any point of taking green electricity, using that to make hydrogen, and then so green energy using that to make hydrogen and then turning it back into electricity for people's homes when we could just directly put the green electricity from wind farms into people's homes through things like heat pumps. So we've got questions about whether it's going to be blue hydrogen, green hydrogen, I don't know, turquoise hydrogen, which is one of the ones that's talked about. But I think we're going to need hydrogen. Of course we are. But we've got to be strategic about where we put it.

Chris - It sounds to me that you are a bit lukewarm then in the sense that there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm from some people - 'Let's go down the hydrogen route' and in fact it's more of a horses for courses. It might have a role, it might fit with some industries, but it's certainly not a one horse race and we certainly shouldn't be putting all our eggs in that basket.

Jess - I think that's spot on. And I think when it comes to things like home heating, there's a lot of research out there. I think over 37 independent studies have now said, look, it's not the right place to put hydrogen. And so we should probably listen to those independent studies. And even the government has gone sort of lukewarm on hydrogen heating, cancelling a proposed trial in one location and there's lots of residents concerned about the hydrogen heating trial and the other potential location. So I think until we see and get a clearer, firmer picture of where hydrogen's going to be most useful, and by that I mean most efficient, most cost effective and most practical, I think we'll have to wait and see where the big industries will be when it comes to hydrogen.

Chris - One of the things we haven't touched on so much is one of the things that people earmark hydrogen for, which is a useful storage vehicle for energy. Because when the sun is shining during the day and there's all this solar capacity, we often end up with a surfeit of electricity and we don't know what to do with it. In some cases that can be used to produce green hydrogen and that can then be used later on when the sun isn't shining. So there is that use for it isn't there? It's not just as simple as we make some electricity and then immediately make hydrogen and then cart that off to people's homes. It's more nuanced than that.

Jess - Absolutely. It's more nuanced and that's what the Climate Change Committee and National Grid say about hydrogen. They say it could be very useful for storing up that green electricity when we do have a surplus of offshore wind power or solar power. Actually Centrica, who are the owners of British Gas, have already committed to turning one of their natural gas storage facilities into a hydrogen storage facility. So we've already got people talking about using this as a storage fuel and that can help us make the most of renewables which are gonna be cheaper than the fossil fuel alternative and probably cheaper than things like nuclear as well. So it's, it's a way of making the best use and the most use of cheaper renewables and that's what the experts think it could have a major role in.

Chris - So putting all this together then, what's your view gazing in your crystal ball about the energy future? How is all this gonna fit together and what proportion of each of the different energy provisions do you think the different things that you foresee as being important are going to be?

Jess - Well, I think it depends on what sector you are talking about. Really when it comes to our power generation, we're already getting 40% of our electricity generation from renewables. And that's only going to increase as they continue to get cheaper. And they continue to get more feasible in different areas of the UK. So I think renewables are clearly going to be the leading power generator as we get to a decarbonised future. I think when it comes to things like home heating and road transport that you and I will take, I think that's probably going to be electric heat pumps, electric vehicles. But you know, even when it comes to heavier transport like HGVs, hydrogen could have a role to play there. We're yet to see how much it's going to cost and things like that, but it could have an important role. And it could have an important role like we discussed in storing up our power or potentially for peaking power as well. But yeah, I think there's a range of things that hydrogen could be used for. I think the government has a role to play in setting some strategic direction like Eugene was talking about. The US has got big green investment packages into things like hydrogen, but much, much wider than hydrogen as well. And the companies that are currently in the UK are thinking about investing in the UK are looking at the US and thinking, I'm just going to invest there instead because I'm going to get more for my money. So that's something that I think industry is pretty keen for the government to replicate in the UK. But I think if we look at what the experts are saying, hydrogen is going to have a major role, but it's going to be in specific sectors, and certainly we're not going to have an unlimited supply, so we've got to be quite clever about where we use it.

Chris - What about infrastructure? Because as we heard earlier on in the programme, it's not just as easy as chucking a new gas down old pipelines that there's a massive cost attached to doing that and that may be a deterrent.

Jess - Yeah, and I think Kathryn mentioned as well, we've got some pipes in the UK, um, which at the moment I don't think is suitable for hydrogen because they, um, will allow the smaller molecules to leak out. So there's some work to be done certainly by gas networks and others who are involved. But you will hear the gas networks telling you that it's gonna be easy and it's gonna be quick and it's going to be great to have hydrogen piped down to have our heating changed to hydrogen heating, but I don't think that's going to be the case. I think that's a wishful thinking on their part. And when it comes to transmission, there's a lot of work still to be done on cost and feasibility.


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