Many innovative technologies are currently being developed and optimised to help achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Core to this, however, will be ensuring no person – or industry – is left behind.
The transition must therefore go beyond electricity to intertwined sectors such as heat, transport and heavy industry.
Already we’ve seen the growth of clean energy generation surge in the UK, with 2021’s Christmas being the “greenest” on record for example. The data, which was released by Drax Electric Insights, revealed that at 23:45 on Wednesday 29 December, fossil fuels generated 1.7GW of electricity, just 6% of the power at the time.
Instead, renewables generated 24.19GW, making up 65% of the country’s electricity needs. The majority of this was wind, making up 15.62GW (55.32%), followed by 2.34GW of biomass (8.27%) and 0.3GW of hydro (1.05%). Solar PV was not generating, due to the time of day.
Solar has however seen a rise in its popularity. The technology has been deployed across a number of sites in the UK and its pipeline grows with every passing day. Offshore and onshore wind generation is also a well-known renewable energy generation source that has seen billion of investment pumped into in order to increase the renewable generation capacity of the UK.
But while renewable generation is seemingly going from strength to strength, other sectors are still looking for their solution to decarbonisation.
One potential is green hydrogen. Often seen as a silver bullet technology for many hard to decarbonise sectors, although it is not without its critics.
Companies around the globe have been pouring capital into green hydrogen innovation and producing technologies that are able to provide that last percentage required for full decarbonisation.
The UK government has been cautious in its approach to hydrogen. Despite major backing, its initial Hydrogen Strategy set a goal of just 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen production by 2030 – significantly lower than countries such as the US, Germany and Australia.
A negative response from industry prompted this figure to be increased to 10GW, with 5GW to come from green hydrogen. But with industry putting pressure on the government to scale hydrogen generation and adoption, where are the key areas for its use in the UK?
Green hydrogen’s role in decarbonisation
As detailed prior, green hydrogen has an important role to play in the decarbonisation of British industries. The UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association’s CEO Celia Greaves believes that the pivotal role hydrogen will play in the energy transition will be in energy intensive sectors, amongst others.
“Electrolytic (green) hydrogen has a key role to play in the energy transition, with government expecting low-carbon hydrogen to account for up to 35% of final energy consumption by 2035, and a target of 5GW of electrolytic hydrogen by 2030,” Greaves said.
“It can help to deliver net zero across the range of ‘hard to decarbonise sectors’, including energy intensive industries, transport and heating.”
In certain sectors electricity itself will not be enough to decarbonise, as indicated by Greaves. Hard-to-abate sectors such as heavy industry, steel production, transportation and heating, among others, all fall under this bracket. Although electricity can be used, there are instances where green hydrogen is showing itself to be a more promising technology that enables the cost-effective decarbonisation of these industries.
Adam Bond CEO of AFC Energy said: “On the journey to decarbonise there are a number of ‘hard to abate’ sectors that will leverage hydrogen’s ability to support decarbonisation, it’s those sectors that have no connection to the power grids, such as for mobility (shipping, rail) or stationary off-grid power (diesel generation replacement in construction and critical power backup).”
There are currently a number of forms of hydrogen being evaluated as a route to decarbonise these sectors. Blue hydrogen – that produced using natural gas along with carbon capture and storage – is often touted as a transitional technology that can be utilised to create an initial market for green hydrogen as a whole. This is why it is currently being included in the UK’s 2030 target.
Green hydrogen has also been handed a boost with the increase in wholesale gas prices. Where blue hydrogen is produced through gas, green hydrogen is created via renewable energy generation sources coupled with an electrolyser. Due to high gas prices, green hydrogen production is now approaching cost parity – a major stumbling block since its inception.
Technologies spearheading the hydrogen revolution
Several technologies are currently being developed as a means to fully develop the hydrogen economy. One of the most crucial technologies to the global industry is electrolysers and vast amounts of capital are currently being poured into innovation and optimisation of this technology. In doing so, it is hoped that green hydrogen production via electrolysis can achieve prices below those of fossil fuels.
“Helping electrolysis to become cost competitive will not only secure its place in delivering net zero, but also provide valuable growth opportunities as UK companies are able to export their solutions and technology,” said Greaves.
“Scale up in supply will need to be matched by scale up in demand, encompassing both fuel cells and combustion across transport, heat and industry. Hydrogen storage will play a key role in enhancing the UK’s energy resilience, providing a buffer between production and use, and helping to reduce reliance on imports.”
Much like how battery storage has been touted as a solution for short-term energy storage, hydrogen storage can do much of the same but can be utilised for long-durations. Several technologies that utilise hydrogen are being develop including salt cavern storage, which holds promise in the Americas and Europe.
Bond however believes the cost to transport hydrogen could be one of the most fundamental areas requiring exploration and innovation. This could create a wider global hydrogen economy with companies and countries, working together on the greater goal of decarbonisation.
“All hydrogen-based technologies are vital to achieving net zero. Our focus at AFC Energy is generating power from hydrogen to replace diesel generation for B2B customers. We also convert, cheaper to transport and store, hydrogen carrier fuels such as ammonia and methanol to pure hydrogen,” Bond said.
“Fuel conversion will play an important role to make hydrogen more accessible and affordable in certain hard to abate sectors, thereby, enabling the earlier adoption of the hydrogen economy here in the UK and elsewhere.”
Key barriers preventing green hydrogen adoption?
Despite the potential of green hydrogen in decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors, there are some crucial barriers currently preventing its scaling. One of the most prominent factors, as indicated by Bond, is the need to reduce the cost of generating green hydrogen and its transportation across distances.
“There remain some barriers to overcome, there’s a need for capital cost reduction of hydrogen generation, and the means of transporting of hydrogen,” Bond said.
“In Europe, the lower cost of delivered hydrogen has increased the pace of adoption. Hydrogen carrier fuels, such as decarbonised ammonia and methanol present an opportunity to lower the cost of transportation and storage.”
Ammonia could have various roles in the green hydrogen economy. It provides a means to be used for long-term storage and can additionally be used as a clean fuel in areas clean electricity is unable to effectively, such as air transportation and ships. It also provides a means for energy to be transported over distance. Ammonia is easier to transport overseas than gaseous green hydrogen and thus this technology could provide wealth for the hydrogen economy.
Greaves believes there is a need to scale the cost-competitiveness of green hydrogen generation.
“Support is needed to help electrolytic hydrogen scale up and become cost competitive. The Net Zero Hydrogen Fund, Hydrogen Business Model and other initiatives are helping but we need to move faster and further if we are to meet our net zero goals,” Greaves said.
“In addition, extending these schemes to smaller projects will allow a wider range of projects to be deployed across the UK – and act as a springboard for future growth. We also need to ensure that demand can scale up in line with the supply of electrolytic hydrogen.”
Eugene McKenna, commercial and strategy director of hydrogen technologies at Johnson Matthey believes policy is an area that needs to see improvement to develop a budding hydrogen economy in the UK.
“The UK has put some policy and funding measures in place to support the electrolytic hydrogen industry scale-up, however, there is still a need for clear hydrogen strategies in key sectors and a shortening of decision-making timescales,” McKenna said.
“For example, in transport, we need targets for hydrogen refuelling stations and fuel cell vehicles; and in domestic heating, there will be no decision on using hydrogen for heat until 2026 and therefore no significant hydrogen usage in heat before this time – this should happen earlier. And these decisions on hydrogen use need to be coordinated with hydrogen production and infrastructure.
“The lack of a roadmap to achieve the recently doubled clean hydrogen target could slow the uptake of clean hydrogen because industry and Public Private Partnerships need some clarity and confidence the other pieces of the puzzle will move in tandem, to drive their investment decisions.”