Dr. Tom Mason, Co-Founder and CEO at Bramble Energy, outlines his thoughts on the recently published UK strategy for hydrogen production and usage, as well as his concerns about an over-reliance on ‘blue’ hydrogen.
In 2020 campaign group UK Hydrogen Strategy Now was formed which as a collective employs around 100,000 people and has a value of £100bn in the UK. The group called upon the UK government to release a dedicated Hydrogen Strategy sooner rather than later so as not to fall behind the rest of the world in employing hydrogen and its associated technologies in the race to Net Zero.
In November of that year, we saw the Prime Minister announce his 10-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution which touched upon hydrogen and the aim to generate 5GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 for industry, transport, power and homes. Although welcomed it was still far off giving an understanding of how this might all be achieved.
Fast forward nine months and we finally saw the dedicated strategy materialise. Although any and all commitment is welcome the strategy falls far short of what could have been delivered. As hydrogen experts, we wanted to receive a full plan of action on just how we were going to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’ but instead we find ourselves – yet again – with many gaps where more guidance will be necessary to realise a thriving hydrogen economy.
Balancing between ‘blue’ and ‘green’
The 5GW low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 had been touted earlier in the 10-point plan so this wasn’t new. As for ambition it appears to be a good start, but the major sticking point is the government’s insistence on a ‘twin-track’ approach to hydrogen, meaning both blue and green hydrogen will be used to phase out fossil fuels.
The UK currently produces around 700,000 tonnes of grey hydrogen annually which equates to six million tonnes of CO₂. With these levels we must look to blue hydrogen but only as a stepping stone. Blue hydrogen is extracted from fossil gas in a process that requires carbon capture technology to trap emissions – but this method still fails to capture between 5 per cent and 15 per cent of the CO2. Blue hydrogen is a sticking plaster in the overall picture – especially when looking towards a fully decarbonised system by 2050.
Hydrogen is desperately needed as part of the transition to a Net Zero economy. But it must be clean, green and fast. Emphasis needs to shift towards green hydrogen which, with scale, can displace dirty hydrogen economically, while carbon capture technologies should only temporarily provide a quick win in carbon reduction. An over-reliance on blue hydrogen would still lead to millions of tonnes of carbon emissions entering the atmosphere every year.
There is a lack of prioritisation in the strategy when it comes to green versus blue hydrogen and just how this can be done whether that is with incentivisation, subsidies, taxation or regulation is yet to be determined. The UK is well placed to accelerate investment in these technologies that makes use of our abundant offshore wind resources and creates high quality jobs for the long term. Giving equal priority to investment in blue hydrogen does not make sense environmentally or economically. Green hydrogen is already a proven clean technology that will not cost us or the planet in the long run.
Now is the time for the UK to move quickly
Looking at our European counterparts like Germany, France and the European Union as a whole, we have already seen strategies come into play. These strategies have all spoken directly about achieving and promoting the use of low carbon hydrogen including The Energy Taxation Directive which will set preferential tax rates for the use of renewable and low-carbon hydrogen for end-consumers. The UK strategy only announced direct funding of £105m and a future £240m which will struggle to deliver scale and is dwarfed by the billions earmarked by Germany and France.
The UK has a lot more already in place to deliver a hydrogen economy especially when looking at other countries that have made hydrogen a pillar in their decarbonisation plans. We are lucky that we are not starting from scratch with some of the world’s leading hydrogen technology businesses already up and running in the UK, demonstrating just how important hydrogen’s role is. The execution of a full and cohesive strategy will propel these businesses to compete on a global scale.
Publication of the strategy is only the first step, and we now must wait for the government to gather evidence from the consultations including business models and standards for low carbon hydrogen production and the Net Zero hydrogen fund. The climate crisis is the biggest challenge humanity faces and speed is of the essence. Red tape should not hold the UK back from taking up its place as a world leader in the production and use of hydrogen.