A coalition of climate groups has warned the UK government that its policy of hydrogen expansion risks keeping the UK reliant on fossil fuels.
Hydrogen is a potentially zero-carbon fuel source, producing just heat and water when burned or used in fuel cells, making it an attractive alternative fuel for heating buildings and powering vehicles. ‘Green’ hydrogen is produced by splitting water by electrolysis into hydrogen and oxygen, while ‘blue’ hydrogen is produced by splitting natural gas into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. While green hydrogen requires a large energy input, blue hydrogen cannot be described as a zero-emission fuel source. Although it could be called net-zero if used in conjunction with efficient carbon capture and storage, there remain serious limitations in this technology.
Now, groups including E3G, WWF and Greenpeace have jointly written to business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng to warn that the oil and gas industry is engaged in an effort to lock the UK into hydrogen based on fossil fuels.
They urged him to reconsider rolling out hydrogen-ready boilers or blending natural gas with hydrogen in the gas grid, as this could keep the UK hooked on fossil fuels, undermining the government’s legally binding commitment to decarbonise. Home heating should be provided by already available, efficient technology such as heat pumps, the groups said, adding that this is also likely to be cheaper than replacing gas boilers with hydrogen boilers. New gas boiler installations are due to be phased out over the next decade.
The Climate Change Committee estimates that 11 per cent of UK homes – mostly in the north-east of England – will eventually run on hydrogen.
They warned that blue hydrogen still generates pollution due to methane leaks in gas extraction via fracking and because the carbon capture and storage technology – which has not yet been widely deployed – does not capture 100 per cent of carbon emissions. They expressed support for green hydrogen, although acknowledged that it is likely to remain a premium product for the next decade as the technology matures. Green hydrogen should be pursued alongside the scaling-up of renewables; decarbonisation of carbon-intensive industries; improvements to energy efficiency, and retraining in green jobs, they said.
“The government’s hydrogen strategy and future public investment must focus on green hydrogen, produced from renewables, and avoid the risks associated with blue hydrogen made from fossil fuels,” said Juliet Phillips, senior policy advisor at think tank E3G, which published a report warning against reliance on blue hydrogen. “To shift away from high carbon infrastructure, the government must resist this potential ‘Trojan Horse’ from the fossil fuel lobby.
Around three-quarters of the £171m allocated to hydrogen projects in the government’s industrial decarbonisation strategy will be spent on blue hydrogen projects. BP recently announced plans to build the UK’s largest hydrogen plant by 2030, which will produce blue hydrogen. BP helps fund the Hydrogen Taskforce – a coalition of companies with interest in hydrogen – which is co-chaired by a Shell executive.
Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace UK, commented that it is worrying the government appears more interested in producing hydrogen from gas (coupled with carbon capture and storage technology) than from renewables.
“Carbon capture isn’t zero carbon and at scale has systematically failed after decades of trying,” he said. “Any strategy that relies on it risks, at best, being poor value for money and at worst ending up dead in the water. The potential for renewable energy production in the UK is vast, so instead of wasting taxpayer money attempting to reheat suboptimal technology, the government should focus on the clean option from the get-go.”
A spokesperson from the department for business, energy, and industrial strategy said: “Scaling up the production of low-carbon hydrogen is a key part of our plan to end the UK’s contribution to climate change by 2050.
“The UK will publish its first ever Hydrogen Strategy this year and we have already set out our ambition to generate 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030, supporting around 8,000 green jobs. This work will be supported by measures including the £240m Net Zero Hydrogen Fund, aimed at supporting hydrogen production.”
A recent investigation explored lobbying efforts by gas companies, such as through the Hydrogen Council. A researcher for the Corporate Europe Observatory commented: “It’s terrifying how good these [hydrogen] lobbyists are”.
According to some people, hydrogen runs the risk of becoming an overhyped buzzword used as a broad brushstroke by government officials to illustrate an environmentally friendly energy future, in pursuit of net zero, whilst conveniently sidestepping the towering technical and logistical issues around any mass rollout to homes and industries across the country.