This week, 13 months after the European Commission published a hydrogen strategy report to the European Parliament, the European Council and others, the British government announced the UK’s “first-ever Hydrogen Strategy”.
A hydrogen economy isn’t a new idea and it’s been under consideration in Europe for the past two decades. Hydrogen isn’t just about fuel cell electric cars either – far from it. The idea of a hydrogen economy is to use the gas across the board, for industry and domestic, for heating, for energy storage, to power shipping, aircraft, light and heavy commercial vehicles and railway locomotives, both indirectly with hydrogen fuel cells and directly by combusting it in piston engines or gas turbines.
But is the government’s enthusiastically worded announcement all it seems? Its focus is jobs, investment, money and more than a smattering of revolution. “The start of the UK’s hydrogen revolution”, in fact. But there’s the merest sense of back pedalling in the announcement, too. Hydrogen only ‘could be’ critical to meet our net zero emissions by 2050 and only has the ‘potential’ to transform the way we power our lives. Call me old-fashioned but that lacks the kind of reassurance I’m looking for as we teeter on the brink of climate apocalypse.
Still, a UK hydrogen strategy ‘could’ be worth £900 million and create 9000 jobs by 2030. It ‘could’ also cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, which seems a tad optimistic but marvellous if it happens. However, the strategy will take a ‘twin-track’ approach of including both ‘green’ and ‘blue’ hydrogen in the mix. And this is where things get a bit sticky.
The National Grid, which in its 2020 Future Energy Scenarios report makes it clear that hydrogen is essential, points out that 8.7 trillion Watt-hours of electricty from wind power went unused in the last decade for want of a storage medium. Making green hydrogen using surplus sustainable electricity plays to one of hydrogen’s main strengths – that of energy storage.
Blue hydrogen, on the other hand, is made by steam reforming natural gas, which means splitting it into hydrogen and CO2 using steam at high temperature, then ‘sequestrating’ (carbon capture) the CO2 by pumping it into holes in the ground. Carbon capture on that scale has never been tried and to be successful would need to be 100% secure with no leakage until hell freezes over.