There’s no silver bullet to carbon-free energy but hydrogen could be part of the solution
We have been making and using it in fertilisers and rocket fuel for decades. Until the 1960s, homes in the United Kingdom were supplied with town gas which contained over 50 per cent hydrogen.
The new interest in hydrogen, though, is because of its potential to help us reach net zero – when burned, hydrogen’s main by-product is water vapour rather than carbon dioxide. Electrification is one route to net zero but not all sectors can electrify and that’s where hydrogen could help.
Electricity has been the UK’s great decarbonisation success. Of all the energy we use, it is the least carbon intensive. Only 30 years ago, 65 per cent of electricity was generated using coal and only two per cent came from renewable sources. Last year, electricity was made from 40 per cent renewables and only two per cent came from coal.
In that same period, much more natural gas was used to generate electricity, from two per cent in 1990 to 40 per cent today. Natural gas is much less carbon intensive than coal, but it is still a fossil fuel.
This final portion of electricity generation is so hard to decarbonise because, beyond a certain point, adding more wind and solar to the grid becomes problematic. Both are dependent on weather conditions and the grid needs a minimum amount (a baseload) of constant and reliable electricity to keep it balanced. Realistic options include developing more nuclear capability and decarbonising natural gas by making hydrogen.
To keep the scale of the challenge in mind, electricity only represents 20 per cent of all the energy we use. That figure hasn’t changed much over the last three decades.
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has this month published a report laying out the challenges and decisions that need to be taken now to increase the amount of overall low-carbon electricity in our economy. This will need an exponential expansion of the electricity grid with more substations, pylons and cabling – all underway but needing to go further and faster. Until then, oil and natural gas make up around 40 per cent each of our total energy use in three main areas – all difficult to electrify and all heavy carbon emitters.
Transport: cars, lorries, buses, coaches and trains still overwhelmingly depend on oil in the form of petrol and diesel. They account for 22 per cent of carbon emissions according to the CCC. Batteries quickly become very heavy for larger vehicles and here hydrogen fuel cells are a low-carbon option.
Our manufacturing industries like steel, cement, glass and ceramics rely heavily on natural gas and coal which is why they represent around 16 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions. They all need high temperatures and/or naked flames which electricity cannot – but hydrogen can – provide.
Home heating makes up 20 per cent of total UK carbon emissions – unsurprising when 83 per cent of households have natural gas boilers. Electric heat pumps are possible but, while costs are coming down, they are still expensive at around £10,000 compared with £3,000 for a natural gas or hydrogen boiler.
There is no silver bullet energy source that is cheap, abundant, reliable, storable and carbon free. The urgent need to decarbonise the planet means trade-offs are inevitable. Paying more is one thing. Imposing unpopular measures on an unwilling electorate is another – and this is where hydrogen could help as part of other climate-friendly options.
None of this is easy. Most of it is expensive. All of it needs difficult decisions to be taken today if we want carbon reductions in the future.
For hydrogen to be an option in the future will need investment decisions and political support now. Without those, we close the door on a potential low-carbon energy source that can buy us the time to find the silver bullet.
Natascha Engel is CEO of Palace Yard and former Labour MP for North East Derbyshire 2005-2017
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