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In conversation: Alexander Stafford, Alan Brown and Baroness Worthington debate energy

6 min read

Three parliamentarians with strongly-held views on energy, Conservative BEIS committee member Alexander Stafford, the SNP’s energy and climate change spokesperson Alan Brown, and life peer Baroness Worthington discuss what more the government should be doing to meet its green targets — and have a fierce debate about the energy topic of the day: hydrogen. Chaired by Adam Payne

Adam Payne: “Baroness Worthington, the Climate Change Committee chaired by Lord Deben recently said the government needed to ‘step up very rapidly’ and come up with some more policies to meet its climate change goals. Do you agree?”

Baroness Worthington: “Please, call me Bryony. Overall, we’re not doing too badly. Twenty years of public policy has helped clean up the electricity sector quite substantially. That has been a combination of some EU regulations and UK policies that have been very innovative and successful. We are starting from a position of strength.
“But the issue is we don’t have anything like the number of policies we need in the transport space. Nor do we have them in the heating space or in the industrial use of energy. We’ve got to catch up quickly and we need to do it as soon as possible because the world will be watching at COP26 in November.”

AP: “Alan, your party has been very critical of the government’s green energy strategy. What’s it doing wrong?”

Alan Brown: “The UK government just isn’t making the right choices. Take the Green Homes Grant. That would have created thousands of green jobs and reduced energy consumption, but the government scrapped it. A green recovery needs to have a coherent energy policy backed up with investment.”

AP: “So if you were the secretary of state for just a day, what’s the one green energy policy you’d implement?”

AB: “It’s very difficult to come up with just one. But a green energy policy must deliver electrification of heating where appropriate – that includes stimulating the heat pump installation market – and it has to roll out infrastructure for electric vehicles, because there just aren’t enough charging points at the moment.”

AP: “Alexander, are your Conservative colleagues in government doing enough on green energy?”

I had a feeling hydrogen would generate some debate

Alexander Stafford: “The government is doing a very good job and it wants to make a big difference. The Prime Minister is a passionate environmentalist surrounded by passionate environmentalists in his wife and his father. It’s a cause that is close to his heart. And the mood music, which myself and other Conservative MPs are hearing, is that the government wants COP26 to be a moment in time.
“We are still waiting on some of the details and that includes the hydrogen strategy, which is one of those key pieces in the puzzle. It is still missing and it is quite overdue.”

AP: “You’re a really big proponent of hydrogen and have called for a hydrogen revolution. Is that realistic?”

AS: “Well, at the moment you can’t stick an electric battery in a heavy-duty truck or plane or boat and, frankly, all the science shows you won’t be able to do that for quite a while. The only technology that is even on the table is hydrogen.

“Then there is the important issue of home heating. Yes, heat pumps are an answer. But they are incredibly expensive and not suitable in some areas. Hydrogen can be mixed with natural gas, until we get hydrogen fully, and that will decarbonize our home heating.

“The UK should invest heavily in this technology because it can boost our economy. If we get there first, we can then export our knowhow and technology across the world and create lots of jobs and wealth at home.

“We also have some huge practical advantages when it comes to hydrogen. For instance, we used to have hydrogen in our pipes a while ago, so we are used to that. Plus, around a quarter of hydrogen cars have components made in the UK. We already have a market which we can grow”.

BW: “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I have to comment on the fact if you take electricity and convert it into hydrogen, you lose half of your useable energy, so it isn’t going to easily compete with electricity. Alex made several statements about hydrogen and it’ll definitely have a role to play. It will be useful for synthetic fuels used to power ships, chemical processing, and the production of fertilizer.

“But trying to move into a hydrogen car market would be a massive waste of public money. That is completely irrelevant, and it will not succeed. One thing we obviously should not be doing is pursuing land-based transport hydrogen strategies when there are absolutely better alternatives.”

AP: “So there isn’t going to be a hydrogen revolution in the UK, Bryony?”

BW: “I just want to draw a line under this slightly overhyped view that hydrogen is the answer. It is deeply inefficient in terms of engineering and potentially a massive waste of money. You do not want to be relying on it as the backbone of your energy system. There are niches where it can be useful, but we should be thinking really carefully how we get those true niches advanced.”

AS: “I’m not saying hydrogen is going to be the backbone of our energy sector but I would argue for certain markets like planes, boats, and heavy duty vehicles, there’s no other game in town whether we like it or not.”

AP: “I had a feeling hydrogen would generate some debate. Alan, whose side are you on?”

AB: “Perhaps surprisingly, I agree with Alex. Hydrogen definitely has a key role to play. I can see it being used for HGVs and Aberdeen is already running the world’s first double-decker buses powered by hydrogen.

“Bryony, you made a point about inefficiency, and hopefully the inefficiency of hydrogen will be reduced over time, but there’s a strong argument for colocation. For example, rather than curtailing wind farms, you can have the colocation of wind and hydrogen.”

AP: “Bryony, you’ve spent years campaigning for stronger action on climate change and played a key role in drafting the 2008 Climate Change Act. What would you like to see the government do right now on green energy?”

BW: “Well, just to strike a note of harmony (laughing), I would announce now that agricultural subsidies are going to pay for green hydrogen fertiliser and develop the market faster than anyone else. 

“We also need to be honest about what’s going on in the North Sea and pivot completely to it being about zero carbon solutions. We need firm affirmative action so people can plan the rest of their careers, jobs can be invested in, and companies know what to do.”

AP: “Well, I’m glad we’re all still friends!” 

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