Hydrogen: Is UK policy and industry at a tipping point?

Recent weeks have seen influential bodies urging the Government to publish the Hydrogen Strategy sooner rather than later. In tandem, announcements have been made about hydrogen-powered homes and vehicles. So, is the UK's hydrogen revolution about to begin?

Hydrogen: Is UK policy and industry at a tipping point?

Hydrogen is widely regarded as a key part of the UK’s transition to net-zero by 2050

Hydrogen has slowly been rising up the UK’s political and industrial agenda in recent years.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) provided its first advice in hydrogen in a low-carbon economy in 2018, when the debate around a potential legally-binding net-zero target was taking off. Since then, that target has become law. Hydrogen funding has been upped through policy packages like the Ten Point Plan. And the Sixth Carbon Budget Advice has added pressure for a more rapid approach.

But this month, in particular, has seen a string of developments in the UK’s hydrogen debate.

Chief among them is ever-mounting pressure on the Government regarding the publication of the Hydrogen Strategy. The Strategy is due before the end of March and business groups are urging the government to ensure that it does not suffer the same fate as the Heat and Buildings Strategy and other policy frameworks affected by Covid-19 related delays.

Earlier this month, the Nuclear Industry Council (NIC) and Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) published a roadmap outlining how the UK could co-locate electrolysis at 12-13GW of nuclear reactors. This commitment could enable the production of 75TWh of green hydrogen by 2050, the bodies claim. The groups are calling for more R&D funding, higher carbon pricing and new financing models to help bring the cost of green hydrogen down to a parity with fossil-based hydrogen, which currently represents more than 95% of global annual production.

Another group with a vested interest in hydrogen, the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, has also published a roadmap this month, detailing a potential trajectory for the sector through to 2050. The roadmap has been backed by business giants including Rolls Royce and ITM Power and explores how the UK could target 80GW of green hydrogen capacity by 2050.  For this target to be met, the roadmap states, the Treasury must overcome historic issues with prioritising other industrial sectors over green hydrogen. The Government must also develop short-term targets backed with adequate funding.

Meanwhile in the political sphere, MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) highlighted the need for a Hydrogen Strategy through their latest briefing on the green recovery. The briefing states that many in the private sector do not feel that the UK’s green hydrogen sector is ‘investable’ yet, as the Ten Point Plan only provides limited and short-term support. Broader and longer-term support, the EAC concluded, is vital to scaling up the sector. This same line of argument has been raised by the Confederation of British Industries (CBI) and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hydrogen.

The UK’s first hydrogen homes and ambulances

Only time will tell whether the UK’s Hydrogen Strategy is published to its original timeline.

Given that the EU is developing and implementing a post-Brexit hydrogen strategy and supporting ‘manifesto’ – and that similar policy developments are underway in the likes of Australia, Canada, Japan and the US – the pressure is on Ministers to ensure that the UK makes early preparations to become a competitive exporter in the sector. It’s not just the long-term net-zero goal on the table.

In the meantime, however, several small hydrogen projects are making the headlines.

BEIS announced this month that the UK’s first homes fitted with hydrogen boilers and hobs will be completed by April. The semi-detached homes in Gateshead will use 100% hydrogen for heating and cooking appliances and have been funded by the Government. Hydrogen will be stored in tanks on site. The first homes to use green hydrogen supplied through a local gas grid are earmarked for completion in Fife in 2022.

In another first, the NHS outlined plans to trial hydrogen-powered ambulances in London later this year. The organisation is sourcing retrofitted hydrogen combustion technology from ULEMCo and pairing it with battery technology from Promech Technologies.

The announcement came in the same week that Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) updated its business strategy to fully electrify Jaguar models by 2025, with another ambition to begin testing hydrogen fuel cell electric prototypes in the UK this year.

There have also been two major hydrogen headlines from Wales. Building materials giant Hanson UK installed a renewable hydrogen generation unit at its plant in Port Talbot, with financial assistance from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and technical support from Swansea University’s Energy Safety Research Institute. At the same time, Logan Energy won a public tender contract to support the delivery of a hydrogen production plant, refuelling and distribution hub in Holyhead. The hub could be operational by 2023 and could supply up to 400kg of hydrogen every day to heavy goods vehicles (HGVs).

Longer-term private sector vision

These new projects may seem small in comparison to the UK’s broader transport, industrial and heat sectors. But it is clear that there is strong private sector support for longer-term, overarching initiatives that deliver an ongoing transition beyond initial pilots.

The Green Hydrogen Catapult, for example, has convened seven big businesses under a shared mission to increase the world’s green hydrogen production fifty-fold by 2026 – in a move they claim will halve costs.  Business members of the Catapult include Iberdrola, Ørsted, ACWA Power, CWP Renewables, Envision, Yara, and Snam. Away from the private sector, non-profit the Rocky Mountain Institute will provide support alongside the UN’s pre-COP26 ‘Race to Zero’ campaign.

Similarly, trade bodies including WindEurope and SolarPowerEurope received backing from Bill-Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy last year to form the Renewable Hydrogen Coalition.

And, while the Catapult is global and the Coalition covers all of Europe, the UK does play host to its own Hydrogen Taskforce, which includes the likes of Shell and BP.

All in all, it would seem that all of the ingredients are ready for the UK to begin dramatically decarbonising and scaling up its hydrogen sector. Over the coming weeks, all eyes will be on BEIS, pushing it to bring the Hydrogen Strategy to the table.

Sarah George

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