COP26 and the Energy Transition: The Importance of Hydrogen

As part of our ongoing series of blogs focussing on CoP26 and the efforts being made more specifically within the construction industry to achieve Net Zero by 2050, this blog will focus on the use of hydrogen as an alternative to oil and natural gas as a means of generating energy. The importance of hydrogen to the UK’s plan for a more sustainable future is highlighted by its inclusion as a central tenet of the North Sea Transition Deal, which my colleague Patrick Wisheu has discussed previously.

So why is hydrogen being afforded such a key role in the UK’s efforts to evolve from a fossil fuel-dependent economy into a more sustainable and greener one? Unlike fossil fuels, the consumption of hydrogen gas as fuel does not emit harmful greenhouse gases at the point of use (the by-products of combustion being water rather than CO2) and hydrogen is particularly suitable for being stored for later use. This has led to suggestions that it could play a complementary role to other renewable sources of energy, such as wind or solar power, which, when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine respectively, may only be capable of producing energy intermittently.

There are a variety of categories of hydrogen based upon how it is produced – the two most common that are discussed are “blue” or “green” hydrogen. The primary distinction between the two concerns how they are produced: blue hydrogen is produced using methane while green hydrogen is produced using water. Today, most of the hydrogen used in the UK is produced through steam methane reformation, whereby natural gas is reacted with high temperature steam in order to form hydrogen.  Hydrogen produced this way can be categorised as “blue” if the CO2 produced is captured or as “grey” if the CO2 is released into the atmosphere. Alternatively, hydrogen can be produced using electrolysis, which involves the use of electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.  Hydrogen produced through electrolysis produces “green” or zero-carbon hydrogen if the electricity used is generated from a renewable source. If non-renewable sources are used, the carbon intensity is not much lower than grey hydrogen.

As a consequence, and as part of a broader recognition that cleaner and more sustainable fuel sources need to be identified and adopted, the UK Government has placed considerable faith in low-carbon hydrogen as one aspect of its plan to reach ‘Net Zero’. As part of this commitment, the UK’s first ever Hydrogen Strategy was published in August of this year, setting out key steps towards delivering 5GW of hydrogen-fuelled power for industry, transport, power and homes by 2030 (although it is projected that the UK’s demand for hydrogen will reach approximately 250TWh or 250,000 GWh by 2050). In addition to setting this target, a package of financial measures was announced, including the Net Zero Hydrogen Fund, which will invest £240m in expanding production capacity; and the Net Zero Innovation Portfolio, “a £1 billion fund to accelerate the commercialisation of low-carbon technologies and systems for net zero”. These financial measures are to operate in conjunction with private-sector investment, which the Government hopes will stimulate and support up to 100,000 new jobs by 2050. In order to meet the ambitious targets set in the Hydrogen Strategy, it is estimated that a combined investment of c. £4 billion is required.

A key aspect of the Hydrogen Strategy is scaling up the production of low carbon (i.e. green and blue) hydrogen. The deployment of Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS) clusters can counteract the carbon produced through methane reformation, increasing the amount of blue hydrogen produced, whilst simultaneously aiming to reduce the production of grey hydrogen, by capturing and storing the CO2 produced during the reaction. As part of the North Sea Transition Deal, the Government aims to deploy at least 4 of these clusters by 2030, including the HyNet North West project which will involve the development of low carbon hydrogen production, hydrogen and CO2 infrastructure and CO2 storage facilities across the North West and North Wales.

The Hydrogen Strategy suggests that a pre-existing widespread use of natural gas and the UK’s geography place our economy in a position to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the shift towards hydrogen power. As a gas, hydrogen is versatile and can be combusted in a boiler, turbine or engine or utilised in a fuel cell and can be transported in much the same way as natural gas or liquid fuels used today. The UK’s decades of experience in the distribution and storage of gas in particular lends itself to a shift towards hydrogen power. In addition, the UK’s abundance of offshore subterranean salt caverns and disused oil and gas fields may be employed for hydrogen storage. These reasons, among others, suggest that the UK is suitably positioned to make the transition away from fossil fuels towards hydrogen as a source of energy. This shift represents one of a number of strides being taken towards achieving Net Zero.

Our ongoing series of blogs on these topics will cover the other changes being proposed in order to transition towards a greener, more sustainable economy.

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