Is it time to kickstart the hydrogen economy?

In response to the government’s ‘Hydrogen Plan’, Benjamin K Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Sussex Business School and co-director of the Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre (IDRIC) spoke to Business Leader about its impact on the UK economy. 

In times of energy crises past, hydrogen has been talked about as the solution but it has never gained significant global traction.

While ambitions for hydrogen have grown significantly in recent years, hydrogen use on a global scale is still limited and overwhelmingly dependent on fossil energy sources.

But hydrogen is increasingly being positioned as a key energy vector due to its versatility as a chemical store of energy for use in the power, buildings, transport and industrial sectors, coupled with its potential to serve – alongside biomethane – as a versatile decarbonized gas

Some estimates predict that hydrogen could account for one fifth of energy consumption within the next three decades while the Hydrogen Council has identified how hydrogen can have a strong impact now and into the future in 35 applications which are currently responsible for about 60% of the world’s energy- and process-related emissions.

Hydrogen delivers a great many benefits; energy security, synergy with existing industries, a viable and incremental transition pathway, the potential for sector coupling and renewable energy integration and its capacity for industrial decarbonisation.

So it is important and welcome that the UK Government recognise the significance and potential for hydrogen as outlined in their recently published Hydrogen Plan which has ambitions to kick start a world-leading hydrogen economy supporting over 9,000 UK jobs and unlocking £4 billion in investment by 2030.

There are different pathways to transition to a hydrogen economy, which depend on a range of factors, such as the level of resource committed to its implementation. Significant government support and financial backing could halve the time it takes for many of these technologies to become widespread. The best available hydrogen technologies should be deployed now.

The most straightforward changes to implement would be to incorporate hydrogen into existing gas grid systems to heat buildings. This change could be achieved gradually and any increases in cost will soon disappear after the early adopter phase. I would equate this change to the switch to highly efficient light bulbs.

The next step up would be delivering direct electrification for heating and cooking into buildings, which would require the implementation of new equipment, and the electrification of train lines, which would be expensive. This could be another relatively easy transition but would require greater buy-in from the public and businesses as well political backing to overcome any resistance.

A further progression into a hydrogen economy would see hydrogen replacing fossil fuels in industrial processes and the production of green hydrogen at scale. These are more untested steps so will require some further R&D and again government support needed to kick-start the process. It is a transition comparable to the introduction of onshore wind power – very achievable given the right support.

Then we enter into more challenging applications which are likely to take longer and require a more concerted effort by government to help deliver. Some may take decades of R&D to deliver efficiently and will require the development of new infrastructure. This could include hydrogen in large commercial vehicles and the direct electrification of HGVs and ships. This challenge would be more akin to the challenges of bringing nuclear power to the UK in the 1960s.

We should not be daunted by such a radical overhaul of our national energy systems, it has been achieved before. In the ten years from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, the UK was able to convert almost half of its homes to run on North Sea gas instead of town gas.

But it is important to recognise that we are starting from the very bottom. Take-up of hydrogen as a domestic heat source is miniscule – less than 1%. And a recent study on the social acceptance of hydrogen in the UK showed that it was viewed less favourably than most other renewable options. This is in part due to the public having a poor understanding of different energy options.

This could be overcome through information campaigns to improve public perceptions of hydrogen. This will be most effective with top-down coordination from the UK government.

Hydrogen can be key player in delivering a Net Zero future but the UK Government will need to deliver on investment if they want to effectively support the ambitions of their Hydrogen Plan.