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UK Hydrogen Strategy - the clean fuel of the future

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In August 2021, the UK government released its Hydrogen Strategy focused on fast-tracking a thriving clean hydrogen economy to deliver 5 GW production by 2030. Low carbon hydrogen is essential if the UK meets Carbon Budget Six by the mid-2030s and net-zero by 2050. 

Here, we will look at the future role of hydrogen in power generation, including domestic and commercial heating and electricity generation. In addition, we will consider the differences between "green" and "blue" hydrogen and how the UK is positioned to play a world-leading role in the hydrogen economy of the future with significant benefits for Scotland.

 The role of hydrogen in meeting net-zero

Hydrogen is a highly versatile fuel. It can be burned in a boiler to heat domestic and commercial space. It can power engines and turbines to generate electricity and heat. It can be converted into electricity using fuel cells, and like natural gas and liquid fuels, it can be readily stored and transported in bulk. 

Additionally, hydrogen can be used where electrification is impractical or uneconomic. It can also power industrial furnaces and long-distance transport. It also provides a valuable way of storing excess energy generated by wind turbines. 

Hydrogen is likely to play a massive role in decarbonising the UK economy alongside other renewable energy sources.

Hydrogen Power - The future for clean energy

 Hydrogen for heating buildings

Today, a large majority of buildings are heated using fossil fuels. Overall heating comprises 74% of building emissions in the UK and approximately 23% of all UK emissions. The electricity powering lighting is fast decarbonisng in the UK although the majority of buildings continue to rely on fossil fuels. The government is looking to switch 30 million residential and commercial buildings to alternative low carbon heating to achieve current emission targets. Low carbon hydrogen will play a vital role in this decarbonising process.

Various pilot projects are underway, that include hydrogen storage and transmission networks along with the development of hydrogen-powered appliances and components. In addition, plans include the establishment of a heated hydrogen town by 2030. Construction of a trial scheme in Levenmouth, Fife will begin in 2022 with the aim of connecting the first customers to the fuel in 2023.ous pilot projects are underway, that include hydrogen storage and transmission networks along with the development of hydrogen-powered appliances and components. In addition, plans include the establishment of a heated hydrogen town by 2030. Construction of a trial scheme in Levenmouth, Fife will begin in 2022 with the aim of connecting the first customers to the fuel in 2023.

 Hydrogen for power generation

Our need for electrical power will increase rapidly in the future. To generate sufficient electricity, we will need flexible low carbon electricity generation combined with improved energy storage and demand-side response for balancing electricity supply and demand. Currently, electricity storage on this scale is impracticable with existing technologies.

Low carbon hydrogen can play a significant role in this process. Spare capacity in wind turbines can be used to produce hydrogen through electrolysis when demand is low. The stored hydrogen can be converted to electricity when the demand is high. To achieve these goals, it will be necessary to develop new technologies such as next-generation electrolysis systems, bulk hydrogen storage, 100 per cent hydrogen turbines, and hydrogen networks.

 Green, blue, grey and brown hydrogen

Unlike natural gas, there are very few hydrogen reserves. As a result, all the hydrogen we use industrially or for power generation must be manufactured. There are three main hydrogen manufacturing processes. Green hydrogen produces almost zero carbon whilst Grey hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels with no carbon capture and produces as much carbon dioxide as it produces hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is produced from a fossil source combined with carbon capture and storage. Often grey and blue carbon are termed as blue carbon with less distinction over grey. Green hydrogen is manufactured using electrolysis powered by renewable electrical energy and forms virtually no greenhouse gases. However, blue and grey hydrogen is manufactured from natural gas, and while it produces high levels of carbon dioxide, the plan is to capture and store the carbon dioxide.

Currently, green hydrogen costs over twice as much as blue, though in the future, that could change or even reverse as the capacity for green hydrogen generation increases. The following prices provide an indication of the various hydrogen fuel types.
  • Brown hydrogen from cheap coal in India costs US$2 per kg
  • Grey hydrogen from natural gas is in the region of US$5-6 per kg in Europe but just US$2 in the US with the cheap cost of fracked natural gas.
  • Green hydrogen produced through electrolysis using renewable power is in the region of US$10-15 per kg.

 The UK's hydrogen economy opportunity

The UK has a unique opportunity to develop a world-leading hydrogen economy and there is much debate over over the role that fossil fuels play in producing hydrogen.

To exploit this, we need to build both the supply and demand sides of the equation. We already produce more electricity offshore than any other country, and we can expand this to provide sufficient capacity to generate green hydrogen from electrolysis.

Although We are also rapidly developing carbon capture technologies appropriate to producing blue hydrogen from natural gas. Additionally, we have developed a robust infrastructure for the storage and transport of natural gas, which provides a good foundation for developing an equivalent hydrogen infrastructure.

 Impact on Scotland

Scotland has a significant role to play in the UK hydrogen economy. Scotland has 25 per cent of the total European wind resources and by 2030 will increase its offshore capacity to 11 GW and its onshore to 8.4 GW. Trials are already underway to develop 100 per cent hydrogen networks, the first of which in Levenmouth will power 300 homes. The economic impact to Scotland is vast, with the export of green hydrogen worth a potential of £25 billion and generating 300,000 jobs.

 Final thoughts

Hydrogen is highly explosive, so should we worry about its safety implications? There will Indeed, we will need improved safety standards, including sensors for early leak detection. However, current thinking is that we will be able to use hydrogen technologies in everyday life while retaining the same levels of safety and comfort as we enjoy with fossil fuels.

That is reassuring – the UK seems to be ahead of the game. 

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