Fossil fuels are fantastically useful substances. Within them they contain huge stores of energy that can be reclaimed simply with the application of a spark. As the world and the UK economy rushes towards Net-Zero each element of fossil fuel’s success will have to be replicated and at a scale that makes them financially viable to base entire industries on.
The last decade or so has seen the impressive rise of wind and solar as industries that have both achieved scale and supplanted one of fossil fuel’s main roles. The creation of electricity can now be cheaply achieved without the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Wind and solar power generation have existed as technologies for decades, even centuries but it is only at scale that they have become competitive as sources of power with fossil fuels.
While they solve the power-generation problem, they cannot touch fossil fuels in other ways. They are not controllable or transportable in the same way as fossil fuels can be which leaves an opening for other zero-carbon technologies to step up and achieve the scale required to topple fossil fuels.
Hydrogen’s role in Net-Zero
Storage, transportation and processes that require massive heat all need a solution and for at least some applications, hydrogen is it.
Low carbon hydrogen is made by the electrolysis of water. As you may remember from a high-school chemistry class, by running an electrical current through water, the hydrogen can be separated from the oxygen and then, depending on your chemistry teacher’s appetite for risk, recombined by setting fire to it.
This process scaled up can be used to turn renewable or nuclear electricity into hydrogen which can then be combusted, or fed into a fuel cell at will and can be used to fuel modes of transportation, thereby, together with renewable power, almost completely replacing the utility of fossil fuels in our economy. While in some cases it will make more financial sense to use batteries for storage rather than hydrogen, it is undeniable that this simple process will form the basis of huge parts of our energy usage in the future. The only questions are, how soon will this happen and when it happens will the UK be a leader in this emerging industry?
Hydrogen can solve a remarkable number of problems that UK industries currently solve with fossil fuels:
As a source of heat it could be used:
- In homes
- To produce steel
- To partially decarbonise cement manufacture
- To replace natural gas in industrial manufacturing
Hydrogen, turned into ammonia, can even be used to make fertiliser, replacing what is currently created from natural gas via the Haber-Bosch process.
While all of the above solutions are practical, it remains to be seen which will find their role in the marketplace when faced with competing technologies which may be more cost effective.
With so many applications available, what is holding back the low-carbon hydrogen industry?
In a word. Scale.
Like renewable energy in the 2000s, low carbon hydrogen is just not produced at the scale required to make it cost effective against existing ways of producing hydrogen or energy using fossil fuels. We all know that fossil fuel use must end, we all know that hydrogen will fill at least some of the gaps, but until there is a large enough production and trade in low-carbon hydrogen industry will continue to stick with what they know.
While the Government is pushing forward with the UK Hydrogen Strategy using the Net Zero Hydrogen Fund and Hydrogen Business Model to prime the hydrogen industry in the UK it could be doing so much more.
It could use a Contract-For-Difference style approach to encourage private investors to massively increase the production of low-carbon hydrogen in the UK. This scale of increased production would change the game, hydrogen producers would be sure they could profit from increasing production, grey hydrogen would be driven from the UK supply chain and there would be enough hydrogen being produced for other industries to start utilising this foundational fuel.
Due to our huge renewable energy industry, high tech engineering and manufacturing sectors the UK is in a prime position to gain a place as leaders in hydrogen technology. We should not miss that opportunity.