CCC boss Chris Stark: Now is the time to kick-start a hydrogen revolution

EXCLUSIVE: The publication of new scientific research into hydrogen - compounded by falling technology costs - has set the UK's business and policy spheres up for a "hydrogen revolution", the Committee on Climate Change's (CCC) chief executive Chris Stark has claimed.

Speaking exclusively to edie ahead of the publication of the CCC’s ‘hydrogen in a low-carbon economy’ report, published today (22 November), Stark argued that corporates, politicians and members of the public should be educated about the benefits and limitations of hydrogen technology in the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent findings into the severe impacts of global warming.

“I definitely think that in terms of industry, particularly heavy industry, there is now widespread awareness of the benefits of hydrogen,” Stark said.

“I certainly have never, in my time working on these topics, seen such a high awareness on hydrogen among politicians. That being said, there is an awareness-raising challenge in every sector, but we can start on this now.”

The CCC’s report concludes that hydrogen can make an “important contribution to the UK’s long-term decarbonisation” – if the uptake of energy efficiency technologies, low-carbon power generators, electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrid-electric heat pump systems gathers pace.

For such a shift to be made, the report recommends that at least one carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility which produces “significant volumes of hydrogen” should be brought online by 2030 and that ministers should commit to funding hydrogen pilot projects across the transport, built environment and heavy industry sectors.

It additionally urges the Government to create a low carbon heat strategy within three years, and a strategy through to 2050 for low-carbon heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) “in the near future” – moves that Stark said were “entirely possible” and “very achievable”.

“We can now see that it is possible to transition from the world we are in today, where hydrogen is being used in relatively small quantities, to one where large quantities are produced and supplied,” he explained.  

“We’ve seen in the past that the UK can do these big energy switchovers – most notably with the natural gas switchover in the late 1970s. Parliament must, therefore, know what’s happening and want to have its say.”

The report notes that ministers have previously implemented policies that have slowed the uptake of hydrogen technologies, like excluding them from its £1m industry decarbonisation roadmap studies in 2015.  It additionally criticises the Government for failing to implement policies that would lead to energy cost reductions for electricity-only households, calling for “urgent” change to be made.

“Instead of making a decision in ten years on something we know is going to be different, we can take action now to reduce our reliance on gas and fossil fuels,” Stark added.

“To give the kind of certainty to business that we’ve had in the electricity generation sector, we will need a hard-edged and fully fledged strategy.” 

‘No silver bullet’

While acknowledging some of the cost and climate benefits which large-scale hydrogen installations could produce, the CCC’s report also details some of its drawbacks – including the current upfront cost of technologies and the fact that fossil-fuel-derived hydrogen is low-carbon rather than zero-carbon, even when CCS is used.

It additionally claims that switching the gas grid to 100% hydrogen would be “impractical” for decarbonising heat, both in terms of cost and energy security. Instead, it concludes that hydrogen could replace gas in parts of the energy system where electrification is “not feasible or is prohibitively expensive”, such as in industrial heat processes and backup power generation.

Heating and hot water account for around 15% of the UK’s overall carbon footprint, with the nation currently off-track to meet a key target of ensuring 12% of heat is generated using renewables by 2020. 

Indeed, Stark told edie that heat has long been regarded as the “achilles heel” to the nation’s low-carbon transition – echoing the sentiments of green business leaders arguing that it will be crucial for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to address the issues with an ambitious, long-term plan of investment.

However, between sluggish policy changes and the CCC’s own “black and white” assertations that the answer was electrification or bust, Stark admitted that BEIS was showing “some leadership” on the issue. 

“I’m not dismissing how difficult this must be for Government; one of the reasons we have had several false starts on this and the Government has, in the past, been reluctant to nail its colours on heat, is because it’s been such a challenging question,” Stark said.

“The CCC has also been quite binary in its outlook, saying that we need to electrify heat pumps or fully decarbonise the gas grid, leaving little room between that. Now, we are presenting new analysis that says we should start immediately on an intermediate strategy that does not rule out hybrid solutions.”

Summarising the report’s key conclusions, Stark said that while hydrogen could be a “very good solution” for hard-to-abate sectors, it “isn’t the silver bullet that some portray it as”. 

Industry reaction

Friends of the Earth’s head of policy Mike Childs welcomed the report, noting that hydrogen could be an “excellent way” of storing energy and replacing natural gas in the face of climate challenges. However, he refuted the CCC’s assertations that hydrogen generated from renewable sources would be “prohibitively expensive” in the future.

 “The Committee is wrong to suggest that hydrogen produced from renewable power is too expensive, as the same was originally said about solar power and offshore wind,” Childs said.

“But with focus and innovation prices have tumbled dramatically. Using natural gas to make hydrogen is still polluting and therefore doesn’t have a future in a zero-carbon Britain.”  

Industry body the Energy Networks Association has also provided its commentary on the report, arguing that the CCC is right to ask the Government to set a “strategic direction” for decarbonising the UK’s heat and energy systems.

Such policy, a spokeswoman for the organisation said, would help gas networks optimise investments and future-proof their infrastructure.

“The RIIO-1 regulatory price control has proven itself time and time again as a highly effective, incentive-based mechanism for delivering innovation and keeping costs down for the public,” the spokeswoman said. “The same must be guaranteed for RIIO-2.”

Sarah George

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