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Why hydrogen?

The UK Government has made a legally binding commitment to achieve net zero by 2050 and has highlighted hydrogen as playing a pivotal role in achieving these targets. With an increase in demand and funding for hydrogen projects, is now the time to consider embarking on a project to capitalise on the opportunity?

Andy Kirchin – Director, Subsurface Low-Carbon Solutions – Energy, explains more about the hydrogen economy and why hydrogen projects are becoming more viable than ever.

30 November 2023 | 5 min read
Andy Kirchin

Sustainability

UK

Ireland

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The current landscape

In the Government’s Energy Security Strategy 2022, hydrogen was highlighted as playing a pivotal role in the UK’s future energy mix, increasing the power-from-hydrogen target to 10GW by 2030.

With the urgent need to decarbonise our energy supply in particular, the role of hydrogen has been reassessed and positioned at the forefront of net zero solutions. An abundant element and clean fuel source, it can provide greener, flexible energy across power, heat, and transport. And, when produced using renewable energy sources, it’s a zero-emission fuel that can be utilised across various sectors, representing a paradigm shift in current energy usage.

According to Hydrogen UK, the UK-wide hydrogen economy could be worth up to £18 billion and could create over 75,000 jobs by 2035. The ‘fuel of the future’ may be on its way to revolutionising how we produce and consume energy.

The UK’s geography, geology, engineering, and infrastructure expertise make it particularly suited to rapidly developing a low-carbon hydrogen economy. This presents huge potential for the UK to become a global leader in hydrogen investment opportunities.

The Ten Point Plan

But with virtually no low-carbon hydrogen produced or used currently, particularly to supply energy, there’s a large amount of scale-up needed.

As set out in the Government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution 2022, the UK Government is aiming for 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 for use across the economy.

The Ten Point Plan announced:

  • New funds and policies that will set the UK on the pathway to meet this ambition, including £240 million for government co-investment in production capacity through the Net Zero Hydrogen Fund (NZHF).
  • A hydrogen business model to bring through private sector investment and plans for a revenue mechanism to provide funding for the business model.
  • Continued improvements in hydrogen technologies, enabled by pioneering UK research and innovation and international collaboration.
  • The Ten Point Plan designated hydrogen as a key priority area in the Net Zero Innovation Portfolio, a £1 billion fund to accelerate the commercialisation of low-carbon technologies and systems for net zero.

Understanding the hydrogen economy

With the pressure on to meet ambitious carbon reduction targets and transition to sustainable energy sources, hydrogen offers a tangible solution to reduce carbon footprints. As a growing sector, new markets and job opportunities are emerging – from the production and distribution of hydrogen through to the development of fuel cell technologies.

Here are some of the reasons why hydrogen continues to be an attractive option:

Zero CO2 emissions – when reacting with oxygen, hydrogen only generates electricity, water and heat. There are a variety of fuel-cells on the market that operate without the need for combustion and the technology is advancing rapidly in terms of power efficiency and portability creating a genuine opportunity to switch from distributed fossil-fuel combustion where emissions are, practically speaking, impossible to capture and remove from the atmosphere.

High energy per mass - means it has great potential for long-term energy needs but its low ambient temperature results in a low energy density (i.e. per unit volume).  This is less of an issue for stationary applications but research continues into compressed gas storage using advanced pressure vessels, utilising fibre reinforced composites capable of reaching 700 bar pressure that could lead to small-scale, truly portable, long-range usage too.

Being versatile and in abundance – hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, mainly in the form of water and fossil fuels, otherwise known as hydrocarbons. However, it is rarely found in free form and is usually combined with other elements which requires input energy to separate it out for use as a standalone fuel. Consequently, the use of hydrogen will inevitably be more expensive than the use of fossil fuels, at least in the near- to medium-term, but that is a cost our climate resilience goals will force us to bear as a society.

Its investment potential – the numbers don’t lie – the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Hydrogen Projects Database shows nearly 1,500 low-carbon projects. Up to 35% of the UK’s energy consumption could be hydrogen by 2050, with 20GW of potential hydrogen projects identified in the UK pipeline (through to 2037). More than £150 million will be spent from the Net Zero Innovation Portfolio on hydrogen innovation, with up to £18 billion in private financial capacity available from UK Infrastructure Bank for the sector.

Its storage capacity – converting renewable energy to hydrogen via electrolysis allows it to be stored and used at a later date with a longevity that is orders of magnitude greater than conventional capacitance-based batteries. This stabilises the input to an energy grid by providing a source of energy, which can be stored for long periods without significant losses.

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