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Green Hydrogen: An Answer to Our Climate Crisis

04 Jan 2023

Low carbon hydrogen is being hailed by the government as a ‘home-grown super-fuel’ which it believes is vital to the UK’s energy security and to meet its legally binding commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

Managing Director at Whitecode Consulting, Alex Hill, examines the UK’s hydrogen strategy and asks if more can be done.

In October 2022, planning permission was granted for the UK’s largest consented green hydrogen scheme. Trafford Council approved Carlton Power’s £300 million scheme at Manchester Road in Carrington, Greater Manchester. Ultimately, it will have the capacity to generate 200 megawatts (MW) of energy. Its construction and operation is dependent on financial support from the Government’s £240 million Net Zero Hydrogen Fund designed to support the commercial deployment of new low carbon hydrogen production projects.

This is a step in the right direction towards meeting the government’s target of up to 2GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2025 and up to 10GW by 2030, using electricity to produce power by splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.

Hydrogen produced from electricity is only as low carbon as the electricity used to produce it. Electrolytic hydrogen production needs to be powered by low carbon electricity generation to deliver real emission reductions. Generating hydrogen using renewable electricity is known as carbon free hydrogen or ‘green’ hydrogen. Decarbonising the UK’s existing power systems and hastening our production of renewable electricity is vital for green hydrogen generation.

According to the Hydrogen Council, hydrogen is central to reaching net zero emissions because it can abate 80 gigatons of CO2 by 2050. It estimates that in a net zero world demand for clean (renewable and low carbon) hydrogen could increase from 90 million metric tons (MT) currently (Nov 2021), to 600 MT in 2050, making up 22% of the final energy demand globally.

I believe it is crucial that the government creates immediate demand for hydrogen production in the domestic market to ensure that we meet our net zero goal. According to the Energy Networks Association (ENA) carbon emissions from household heating must drop from almost 3 tonnes a year to 138ky by 2050 to reach the net zero target. I have long argued that by blending up to 20% hydrogen into the gas grid with existing natural gas is one way of reaching that target. Beyond the 20% level domestic boilers need to be changed to run on a higher mix of hydrogen. However, the hydrogen must be carbon free and ‘green’ to have a true impact on emissions.

The government is due to make a policy decision next year (2023) on whether to allow up to 20% hydrogen blending (by volume) in Great Britain’s gas networks. Currently just 0.1% of the gas in Britain’s network of gas pipelines is allowed to be hydrogen by law.

The government notes that if a decision is made in 2023 to allow blending up to 20%, it does not anticipate blending at a commercial scale to commence before 2025 at the earliest. This is a frustrating delay especially when the ENA states that the UK’s gas grid will be ready to blend up to 20% hydrogen in gas networks from 2023 and all five of the country’s gas grid companies will meet the government’s deadline for hydrogen readiness. It is equally frustrating when the impact of blending on our carbon emissions is made clear. The ENA estimate that potentially 6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide could be taken out of the atmosphere every year through blending.

Government legislation means that new homes built after 2025 will have to have an alternative heating system like a heat pump, but that means there are billions of homes with boilers that could be utilised to support a carbon free future. Many boilers are ready to run on a 20% hydrogen blend without any technical adjustments being needed. Replacing a gas boiler for a hydrogen ready boiler is thought to be similar to the cost of replacing a gas boiler currently – about £2,500.

The Energy Saving Trust estimates that an air source heat pump installation will cost about £6000 to £8000 and a ground source heat pump installation between £10,000 and £18,000. Currently there is limited domestic heat pump manufacturing capacity in the UK. According to the BEIS of the 33,600 heat pumps installed in the UK in 2019, 22,753 were imported and only 10,830 were manufactured here in the UK, with the vast majority of heat pumps being produced in Asia.

Installing and servicing hydrogen boilers requires a small amount of additional training, whilst, according to The Heat Pump Association, to meet the government’s heat pump installation target will require 44,000 qualified heat pump installers, there are currently only 1,800 in the UK.

According to British gas distribution company SGN, central heating is responsible for up to a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas output. The government is supporting SGN in delivering a neighbourhood trial of hydrogen for heating on the east coast of Scotland, known as the H100 Fife project. SGN is developing a world’s first hydrogen network in Buckhaven and Denbeath to bring renewable hydrogen into homes in 2024. In the first phase the network will heat about 300 homes using clean gas produced by a dedicated electrolysis plant powered by an offshore wind turbine.

The government’s hydrogen strategy is moving the UK towards a carbon free future, but it has to move in the right direction. Investing in green hydrogen is a long-term sustainable solution that will reduce our carbon emission and give us a real home-grown super-fuel. I believe an early focus on domestic supply could spark an immediate demand for the creation of a green hydrogen economy that will rapidly put us on track to meet our ambitious climate goals.

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