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H2 101: Why hydrogen and why now?

Gareth Williams, Director of Strategic Development

Gareth Williams, Director of Strategic Development | High Value Manufacturing Catapult

4 min read Partner content

Net Zero is driving global industrial transformation which presents an opportunity for the UK to secure its position as a net zero powerhouse. In hydrogen, there is significant opportunity for the UK to invest strategically to become truly world leading and ensure that UK technology powers the global hydrogen economy.

Through this, decarbonising and securing growth for the major industrial sectors that are critical to the UK’s economic success.

It is becoming clearer that, despite the increasing demand for renewable energy, there are further opportunities to secure for our UK supply chains. Hydrogen is now globally recognised as critical to reaching net zero. As an emerging market it represents an end-to-end opportunity with vast economic impact. However, with many competing priorities, why should the UK be investing its resources, time and money into securing its role in the hydrogen economy?

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It can be used in many industrial applications in similar ways to natural gas or converted into electricity in fuel cells, but with zero carbon emissions. It also represents a cost-effective way to store the vast amounts of energy that will be required for a decarbonised power sector by 2035. Because of this, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) expects hydrogen and its derivatives to meet 12% of total global energy consumption by 2050.

Once produced, stored and distributed, the gas can be used for applications across our energy and industrial systems where alternatives such as electrification are not suitable. This includes the manufacture of metals, ceramics, glass, cement and industrial chemicals, as well as enabling transport by land, air and sea without fossil fuels.

Hydrogen will be a crucial, cross cutting sector and the UK has an opportunity to be a world leader in the development and manufacture of the key technologies that will be required. Although the technology needs are understood, there are no clear market leaders established, and the supply chains are neither well developed nor operating at the scale required to drive costs down.

To be a leading exporter in the technology that will support the world in making, moving and using hydrogen, we need to act now. The next decade represents the window of opportunity to secure the UK in a world leading position.

The choice is clear: make our mark or miss the opportunity and allow others to hold influence.

Collaboration across government, industry and academia is essential as we work together to build and scale up the capabilities, products and services needed to create a hydrogen economy. The UK has incredible R&D capability and top-flight universities, but technological discoveries do not change the world unless they can reach industrial scale - made widely accessible and economically viable.

That’s why the Hydrogen Innovation Initiative (HII) is bringing together the resources of key stakeholders to coordinate our efforts. Our partners are world-leading organisations including the National Physical Laboratory, three technology centres and six Catapult centres, working alongside government and industry. Our combined expertise is being used to work out the size and scale of the opportunity for the UK to become truly world leading in this space.

The prize on offer is one that the UK shouldn’t miss out on and goes further than the immediate decarbonisation impact of producing a low-carbon alternative fuel. Near term government analysis suggests that the UK hydrogen sector could support over 12,000 jobs and unlock up to £11 billion in private investment by 2030. We believe these figures are only scratching the surface of the long-term potential which this new, cross-cutting sector represents. We expect to see exponential growth in hydrogen beyond 2035, and we must act now to unlock the full economic impact and wider societal benefits this presents.

If we succeed, we will not only protect existing UK industries by pivoting current supply chains into hydrogen technology. We will catalyse a new wave of manufacturing and technology industries. Enabling both to flourish with new green jobs, boosting the UK economy while continuing the journey towards reaching our net zero targets.

However, reaching a hydrogen-powered future is not without challenges. It is a sector that requires significant innovation to make a hydrogen economy more efficient and viable at scale.  This can only happen with the right infrastructure, securing the necessary investment, and scaling the necessary technology, but such changes won’t happen overnight.

Global supply chains for hydrogen technology are rapidly being established – and the rate of development is only going to accelerate. The UK should seize the chance to become a central node in this emerging international technology and energy export market. This is the time for us to stake our claim, boost public and private investment, and get ahead of the international curve.

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