We all recognise that we need to make major changes in the way we produce, manage and use energy, particularly as central and devolved governments in the UK are now considering legislation to move to net-zero emissions by 2050.
One such major change could be the establishment of a strong hydrogen economy. Hydrogen is not a silver bullet. But it could make a substantial and complementary contribution alongside electrification in our system-wide approach to decarbonisation in the UK.
Hydrogen is beginning to make waves across the world including in the UK, New Zealand and Japan. Hydrogen buses are due on London’s streets imminently, trains are under serious consideration in Wales, and homes heated by 100 per cent hydrogen could be a reality within years, not decades.
I believe the potential benefits could outweigh the challenges, and with ambitious targets being set, it is starting to look difficult for the UK to decarbonise the energy system without a substantial role for hydrogen.
As part of an ongoing series of research on the future of energy, my team recently hosted workshops with clients and collaborators interested in hydrogen from across the private and public sectors.
The output, our report Future of Energy: How to Establish the Hydrogen Economy by 2035, identified a series of actions required to make the hydrogen economy a reality in the UK.
Action is needed now – There is a window of opportunity for the UK to benefit from leading and there are low-regret decisions that should be made today.
Joined-up approach – A centrally coordinated initiative is needed involving multiple government departments and all sectors of the supply chain.
Policy and market design – Government and industry must collaborate to design innovative market structures that give taxpayer value and reduce industry risk.
Supply and demand
Without a growth in demand, large-scale production of hydrogen will not happen. So what steps can we in the energy sector take?
We can consider early opportunities to blend hydrogen into existing gas supplies.
Up to 20 per cent can be blended into methane with no need to change existing domestic appliances and infrastructure. Blending offers a rapid decarbonisation opportunity and provides an early opportunity to scale up production.
Market mechanisms, like those deployed by government to support renewables, could be one option.
Other more specific opportunities to increase demand include: transport, high-temperature industrial furnaces and domestic homes with large-scale conversion.
The safety case and consumer acceptance is being looked at as part of the Hydrogen for Heat programme that Arup is project managing on behalf of the government.
And what about supply? There are two main options for producing low-carbon hydrogen: electrolysis of water using renewable electricity and reformation of methane with carbon capture and storage. Both are receiving investment to bring forward their development and can be integrated into existing systems and infrastructure.
Fortunately, government and industry are taking the opportunity seriously, and acting now. The UK Government Hydrogen for Heat programme is progressing well, and I look forward to sharing insights in my conference presentation about projects that Arup is undertaking with partners including Cadent and National Grid in London, and with SGN in Scotland.
Now established as the leading energy event for UK policymakers and industry leaders, the 2019 Utility Week Energy Summit will bring together 150+ key stakeholders to debate these key issues and more. The event will take place in London on 13 June. To find out more read our preview piece here. To book, visit our event website.