Coronavirus has fundamentally changed the way most of us do business – fewer people are commuting, flying or making journeys for business or leisure, all of which has had a positive impact on carbon emissions.

However, the longer-term environmental impact of the ‘new normal’ remains a moot point. Current and future global climate impacts resulting from COVID-19, a recent report published in Nature Climate Change, suggests temporary lockdowns could prevent 0.01°C of global warming. This figure is dwarfed by the 1.5°C rise in temperature currently projected by 2050. However, a green recovery from the pandemic could make a much more significant contribution, potentially reducing that 1.5°C rise by 0.3°C.

Therefore, targeting the technologies that can have the biggest impact in supporting the green recovery is critical. Is now the time for hydrogen, the perpetual bridesmaid in clean energy development, to take centre stage?

If we are to achieve ‘net zero’ by 2050, pushed along by the pandemic catalyst, hydrogen has the potential to play a significant role. It can decarbonise domestic heating, transportation and many industrial processes. Other European nations are already embracing hydrogen’s low-carbon potential. Germany announced in June a national hydrogen strategy to increase production capacity to 5GW by 2030 and 10GW by 2040, with €7 billion targeted at new businesses and research. In March, the EU announced plans for an EU-wide hydrogen alliance to identify investment needs and any regulatory barriers to its adoption.

Hydrogen technology is relatively simple. It falls into two main areas:

  • steam reforming, which produces grey and blue hydrogen by splitting natural gas into carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The production of carbon dioxide means this can’t be considered a ‘green’ process; and
  • electrolysis, which produces green hydrogen. Water is split into its constituent elements of hydrogen and oxygen, through a process powered by renewable energy.

Most of the world’s hydrogen demand comes from the chemical, refining, and iron and steel sectors, and in only 4% of cases is the gas sourced from electrolysis. Nearly all (96%) is sourced from non-renewable sources: natural gas, oil or coal.

There are two main obstacles to wide-scale hydrogen adoption. Firstly, as a fuel, it needs to be stored at a higher pressure. Emerging technology aims to tackle this by focusing on storing hydrogen in liquid organic hydrogen carriers (LOHCs) – fluids that can store and transport energy in the form of hydrogen, before safely releasing it to burn for heat, for example at a power plant or the fuel intake for a car or lorry. It is acknowledged that much more energy could be stored and distributed at lower financial and social cost via LOHCs than using batteries or transmission wires. Secondly, electrolysers often operate at just 65% efficiency. Newer plants are improving efficiency to between 75-80% but with that comes a higher initial capital cost than comparable steam reformers, coupled with concerns about the flexibility of the plant and its commercial life.

Research and demonstrator projects are well under way to provide solutions to these obstacles, and the pace around development of hydrogen is increasingly rapidly. However, the additional cost of introducing hydrogen into the energy mix is still a major inhibitor. In the UK  a number of hydrogen projects have secured government funding, including:

  • Gigastack – a project using offshore wind power to produce hydrogen gas through electrolysis;
  • Hynet – a project based around the Mersey producing hydrogen from natural gas reforming. It includes carbon capture for the carbon dioxide and there is provision for a hydrogen gas pipeline;
  • HyPER – a pilot at Cranfield University producing hydrogen from natural gas, and capturing carbon emissions; and
  • Dolphyn – a project combining desalination and electrolysis with floating wind turbines to produce hydrogen from seawater.

While these projects are promising developments, the UK is still missing an overarching hydrogen strategy that brings together government, academics and developers to create and pump-prime a new hydrogen economy. We understand that BEIS has plans to publish a hydrogen strategy in spring 2021 alongside its industrial decarbonisation strategy which is to be welcomed. The matching of hydrogen supply with industry demand from the key industrialised sectors will be a big contributor to making the hydrogen projects of the 2020s and beyond a success. The UK missed opportunities to lead the market when the wind industry and battery technology were in their infancy. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past and should seize this opportunity to lead a hydrogen revolution.

Gareth Parry is a member of Shepherd and Wedderburn’s Clean Energy Group and a Partner in the firm’s construction and engineering team. For more information, you can contact Gareth on 0141 566 8522 or at gareth.parry@shepwedd.com.

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