The UK must set out a hydrogen strategy as part of its commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, experts from the hydrogen sector have said.

Today the UK Environmental Audit Committee met remotely for the second hearing on technological innovation and climate change, exploring the role of hydrogen production and distribution in meeting net-zero targets.

This follows the unveiling of the European Union’s hydrogen strategy, which commits €140bn to the use of hydrogen to “support the decarbonisation of industry, transport, power generation and buildings across Europe”. The strategy is part of its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050.

As a result, there have been calls for the UK to follow suit.

“The commitment to net zero has had a substantive impact”

Professor Neil Brandon, engineering dean at Imperial College London, told the committee that the latest surge in interest in hydrogen is underpinned by advances in technology.

“Hydrogen has been around as a topic and a potential low carbon energy carrier for a very long time and it has had a number of surges of interest over decades,” he said.

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“I think the difference today… is the commitment to net zero has had a substantive impact. I think you can avoid mitigating some of the really hard to decarbonise sectors if you’re not committed to net zero and hydrogen has really come to the fore in helping us think through how we decarbonise things like industrial heat, long-distance transport.

He added that the hydrogen industry has taken time to mature but there is “still scope” to take the technology “forward at scale and improve them”.

Hydrogen is a cleaner and more efficient fuel source than combustion. The UK has committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a target that will require “unprecedented innovation across the economy” and investment in low-carbon technology, according to a study by the Energy Systems Catapult.

Amanda Lyne, chair of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, said that the use of hydrogen is a key part of this.

“The thing that’s changed is the need for us to fully and 100% decarbonise and that requires everybody to change,” she said. “It’s not needing to justify it on efficiency or other aspects, the fact is we need to stop putting CO2 and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“One of the reasons why hydrogen can do the hard-to-do bits is it requires potentially less compromise or change…we have the opportunity by providing a solution in some of those areas we may be able to do it quicker and sooner which is what we need to do, rather than needing to go other innovation that comes alongside it.”

“We’re behind on the strategy”

UK trade bodies, including the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association and RenewableUK, have called for a “clear, strategic plan” for a UK-wide hydrogen economy.

The Hydrogen Strategy Now campaign group has said that it has £1.5bn ready to invest in hydrogen in various forms once the government produces a strategy.

Dr Angie Needle, director of strategy at Cadent Gas Limited, said that although the UK is a leader in innovation, it lacks the necessary strategy to underpin this:

“We’re in a good situation in the UK in that the mains replacement programme that has been ongoing…makes it hydrogen ready. It makes it so you can distribute 100% hydrogen if you wanted to.”

“A lot of European countries are looking at blending and I think we’re ahead in terms of the technology and understanding of blending. But we’re yet to set out our own strategy. So technology and innovation-wise the UK’s ahead, both from a production end, the distribution end, and the consumer end.

“A strategy over the top of that would drive extra support, innovation and funding into those places. I don’t think we’re behind on what’s possible, I think we’re behind on the strategy.”

UK hydrogen strategy to build on investment

In February, UK energy minister committed £28m to five new hydrogen production initiatives in Scotland. However, Richard Halsey from the Energy Systems Catapult said that meeting the net-zero target will require “significant” investment.

“We’ve looked at many possible pathways to net-zero and what’s come about is there’s a consistent need for very large volumes of hydrogen across the system in delivering net zero outcomes. The game-changer there has been the net-zero position which could mean using as much as 300twh of hydrogen across the system by 2050. That is broadly equivalent to the size of our power sector today, which is a massive change and will require very very significant investment for us to just keep pace with other economies.

“It’s fair to say the level of investment if we are to exploit the opportunities that the UK potentially has needs to be much greater than it currently is….we are seeing other economies making some fairly significant investment and certainly we feel that the if the UK is going to retain a strong position in the global hydrogen economy, it needs to be making those investments itself.”

“What those investments need to do is they need to be aligned with a strategy and a road map for an end-to-end view of hydrogen in the UK and that road map and strategy really needs to effectively guide those investments to ensure they are coordinated and joined up and we realise the value of them.”

“The UK has some world-class technology companies in this space”

The EU’s strategy has been criticised by some for including ‘blue’ hydrogen, or hydrogen produced from fossil fuel gas. Green hydrogen is more expensive than blue hydrogen production and requires high volumes of renewable electricity to be converted into hydrogen.

Brandon believes that this issue needs to be addressed, with attention paid to carbon capture technology:

“Obviously if we’re going to go down the route of hydrogen as a low-carbon carrier, the carbon intensity of that hydrogen, so how we make it, becomes extremely important. If we don’t address that, the only benefits we might see from hydrogen are really air quality benefits as a transport fuel in cities. That’s a valuable thing to get regardless of the source of hydrogen, but from a carbon perspective clearly we need to address it. If we continue to make it from fossil fuels, and we may choose to do so, we have to integrate it with carbon capture schemes and we have to integrate it with very high levels of carbon capture as well, approaching 100% carbon capture.”

“We can produce what people refer to as green hydrogen. This is hydrogen made entirely from low carbon sources, primarily from renewables but you could conceive of it from nuclear but I think renewables is the most likely source.”

Brandon noted that the UK is home to a significant number of hydrogen technology companies, and that there is now an opportunity to “build on this innovation:

“The UK has some world-class technology companies in this space. They’re quite small 300-400 person businesses. They’ve been working really hard over the last couple of decades to get to that point. You’re seeing investment into those companies from major overseas players, and those technologies being deployed. And that’s a really important thing to note. We actually make stuff in this country that’s used in this sector and it’s globally leading. There’s a great opportunity to build on this innovation and grow that sector.”

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