Securing a Sustainable Future with Hydrogen
George Adams, Director of Energy and Engineering for SPIE UK, presents the case for green hydrogen in the UK energy mix.
The future of sustainability in the UK is critical to showing the way forward with others across the globe and demonstrate that 2050 is too late.
The truth is, there is no single solution. One thing to be sure of is that fossil fuels will not contribute as a long-term fix, therefore transitioning from this source will be beneficial to the health and economic stability of us all. Renewables, nuclear and sustainable hydrogen all have a role to play in reducing carbon emissions emitted in the UK. However, the nascent sustainable hydrogen industry, as well as the government and related industries such as the built environment, will need to work collaboratively to create a robust market for its consumption. Robust infrastructure also needs to be developed to ensure hydrogen can get where it is needed, in addition to supportive financial markets for investment and trade in this commodity of the future.
Hydrogen fuel can be produced from methane or by electrolysis of water. In electrolysis, electricity is run through water to separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms. It can use wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, and nuclear to achieve a “green solution”. Previously, energy-intense methods depended on the use of fossil fuels for them to operate. With the availability of cheaper renewable energy, this has now changed. The UK government’s Ten Point Plan highlighted low-carbon production hydrogen as a viable complementary technology to electrification, particularly in heavy industry. Building a plan around this strategy, funding it and executing upon it is critical, especially in light of the government’s new commitments to slash emissions by 78 percent by 2035. Achieving such a target will not be accomplished simply by making easy changes and will require major transformation across the energy market, heavy industry, and the built environment. However, there is no reason why the government’s objectives cannot be met, and hydrogen is likely to play a key role in doing so.
Hydrogen has several applications and green hydrogen can be used across industries. It can transport renewable energy when converted into a carrier such as ammonia, a zero-carbon fuel for shipping, for example. The technologies and use of materials are changing and developing at a fast pace and many organisations are now experimenting or even changing to a new renewable energy solution with hydrogen very much in the mix. There are other, highly innovative use cases too. One exciting use of hydrogen, in conjunction with wind and solar technology, is that buildings could produce their own fuel. On-building turbines and solar leaf technology, which is applied to windows and allows light in whilst capturing solar power, could drive in-building electrolysis.
Hydrogen will help deliver important improvements including sectors where emissions reductions are currently impractical or logistically disruptive and too expensive. But the changes for the energy transition are numerous, complex, and often innovative such that we are facing a huge industrial challenge requiring vision, skills and financial support. In 2006/7, Sir Nicholas Stern identified the need to allocate 2 per cent of global GDP to limit the average increase in global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade; we now know we need to achieve 1.5 degrees Centigrade.
It is crucial that the government, the built environment, the energy industry and financial markets work collectively to ensure the Ten Point Plan becomes a tangible strategy. Providing support for the development of hydrogen production would be a good first step. As production scales up and hydrogen becomes more affordable, the viability of hydrogen projects will also increase. In turn, this will help create a broader market for hydrogen production, encouraging greater private investment into the sector. In supporting this next stage, the UK government should absolutely take the lead on creating favourable conditions for the creation of green financial markets that can bring said private investment to the UK. With the level of market expertise and the size of the UK’s existing capital markets, all the necessary building blocks are there to accomplish this.
Regulation is another obstacle that needs to be addressed. The use of hydrogen in heavy industry, mobility and heating is all relatively new and not necessarily widely understood. With such nascent applications and innovation taking place at such an incredible pace, there is the potential for people to misunderstand the degree of liability and risk. Even though hydrogen standards exist, the government, the hydrogen energy sector, and insurers should be resolute in their commitment to promote and improve them. Improving confidence in the viability and safety of hydrogen is crucial; without it, hydrogen projects will not be able to get off the ground at the speed or scale necessary to solve the climate crisis.
For hydrogen technologies to be rolled out at the scale needed, there also needs to be a far bigger workforce available to the industry. This is not only in the energy sector, but also related sectors such as the built environment and facilities management. These related sectors need to develop a better understanding of the potential applications, how they can deliver a benefit for their customers, and how they have to be installed and managed. As the growth of renewable energy technologies has shown, giving people the opportunity to reskill and providing businesses with the support to do that reskilling can help quickly grow an expert workforce and help manage job displacement as decarbonising progresses.
With the ambitious goal of a 78 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2035 now enshrined into law, the fact of the matter is that we can no longer rely on the low hanging fruit if we are to meet this target. In order to achieve this goal, every sector of our economy is going to have to make changes, but those in heavy industry, transport, energy and the built environment are going to have to make wholesale operational changes than most. The UK is home to a potent mix of robust capital markets, science and technology expertise, existing energy infrastructure and apparent government enthusiasm for tackling the climate crisis. As such, there is no reason why the UK cannot be at the forefront of decarbonising its economy and becoming one of the leading innovators in hydrogen solutions in the process.