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Will the hydrogen gasman ever cometh?


AS the country emerges from a cold, still week into the more usual wet and windy Christmas weather, the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology has published a report entitled The role of hydrogen in delivering Net Zero. 

The role of hydrogen in delivering Net Zero is important and contentious. The importance is easy to understand; for wind turbines and solar panels to have a chance of meeting the UK’s winter needs when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun ain’t shining (known as Dunkelflaute), vast amounts of energy have to be stored.  

As hydrogen is relatively straightforward to produce by electrolysis and relatively easily storable in salt caverns, it is a simpler option than grid-scale batteries. It’s almost certainly cheaper too, with far less demand for the exotic materials which are needed to make batteries.  

There are three ways of converting the stored hydrogen to usable energy. Put it in a fuel cell and you can power vehicles. Burn it in a turbine and you can produce electricity or, possibly, fly an aeroplane. Or you can burn it directly to obtain heat – either in a blast furnace or a domestic boiler.  

These technologies all exist today. Indeed, the energy company SSE is in the throes of building just such an installation at a cost of £100million. Using hydrogen in domestic boilers requires conversion; the current government requirement is for new boilers to be hydrogen ready by 2025, which is easily achievable. 

There are several types of hydrogen, referred to by colours, despite the gas itself being colourless. ‘White hydrogen’ is pure hydrogen extracted from underground – there’s not much of it about. ‘Grey hydrogen’ is made from steam reformation, a high-temperature process that emits a lot of carbon dioxide. ‘Blue hydrogen’ is made in the same way as grey, but the plant is fitted with CO2 capture and storage (called CCUS and a technology yet to be deployed at scale).  

‘Green hydrogen’ comes from electrolysis – the energy is CO2 free, so is the hydrogen. This technology exists and is being deployed in increasing amounts. The British company ITM Power is at the forefront of the industry. 

So far, so good. Inevitably though there is controversy, much of it started by those with vested interests in batteries and heat pumps.  The single largest source of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions is domestic heating – some 23million homes burning some 310 terawatt hours of gas a year. (A terawatt hour is a unit of energy equal to outputting one trillion watts for one hour). 

That’s 20 per cent of all UK energy use and around 50 per cent more energy than is produced by all the UK’s clean electricity generation. Heat pumps reduce the amount of energy needed by a factor of two to four, depending on the ambient temperature (the lower the temperature, the less the saving). That means many fewer wind turbines and nuclear power stations. Arguably heat pumps need just ten per cent to 20 per cent of the electricity required to heat with hydrogen. 

Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward. Increasing the consumption of domestic electricity (which heat pumps do) means that many houses and streets will need upgraded wiring. Heat pumps are also slow to fit – last year, just 40,000 were installed in the UK. That’s up significantly from two years ago, but at that rate it would take more than 500 years to fit them nationwide. 

The select committee report provides a comprehensive review of the challenges and is clear, but detailed. In its conclusions (page 75, para 24) it says ‘there are still uncertainties which entail the risk that technologies do not prove reliable in time, or require excessive costs for consumers and taxpayers’. 

While the report refers to hydrogen, the same could be said of the entire Net Zero requirement that Theresa May introduced in 2019. Three years into this project, the Government still does not know if Net Zero is possible, or whether it is affordable. As others have written, the UK is hardly awash with cash and the prospects for generating wealth in future are bleak.  

It’s a hell of a way to run a country. 

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here. He is the Reform Parliamentary Candidate for Swansea West.

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