Comment: Green hydrogen is key to skills and sustainability

3 min read

Hydrogen offers hope for a skilled engineering economy but ministers risk wasting the opportunity, says Bill Ireland, CEO of Logan Energy

Boris Johnson says hydrogen is ‘the low carbon fuel that has perhaps the greatest potential of all’.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s vision is that this hydrogen is generated using North Sea hydrocarbons. In other words, gas.

The real opportunity for the UK is to develop a thriving green hydrogen economy, where we harness our abundant renewable resources such as wind, wave and solar to power the electrolysis that can generate plentiful hydrogen, to be used when and where it’s most needed.

Green hydrogen offers hope, not just in terms of cutting carbon emissions, but in terms of creating jobs, upskilling and retraining engineers in other industries, and making the most of UK expertise so we can trade on our strengths.

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed up natural gas prices to the point where green hydrogen is now cheaper than highly-polluting grey in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and China. Companies looking to end their reliance on gas are now viewing green hydrogen as a more viable option than they once did.

There is a real risk that other countries steal a march on the UK as we continue to overlook the opportunity.

The PM has made clear he wants to see more wind, hydro, tidal and geothermal but also nuclear. When you add in his comments about using gas to generate hydrogen, is the problem here that we are spreading our energy policy too thinly?

A concerted effort to build a green hydrogen foundation for the UK would address multiple issues: fuel for transport, heating for housing, keeping costs down for households and businesses, as well as tackling climate change.

Before the pandemic, I spoke to an audience of industry colleagues in Australia. Some were quick to heed my advice as, in the time since, companies there have signed agreements for land rights to deploy renewable energy. I can see these regions, including the Middle East, becoming blanketed with solar panels before the decade is out, putting them in a prime position to generate green hydrogen.

Just look at the likes of JCB - a big British brand importing Australian hydrogen, made from solar resources, because it can’t source green hydrogen here at home.

The UK government’s commitment to achieving net zero by 2050 is, of course, most welcome but it must be accompanied by joined-up policy. Think what could be achieved if they set a target for fleets, both public and private sector, to use zero emissions vehicles. It could be a modest percentage to start with, but ramping up within a few years until the majority of such vehicles are zero emissions. This really would send a signal, and start the finance flowing in the right directions.

At the moment, political leaders’ attention is being drawn in multiple directions. There’s a war in Europe, a cost of living crisis, a climate emergency and the after effects of the pandemic. But energy connects with everything, and perhaps it’s time for ministers to stop hedging their bets and look at what ticks all the boxes.

Green hydrogen would give us energy independence, would help tackle the cost of running transport and heating our homes, as well as showing real action on the climate, rather than just more ‘blah blah blah’, as Greta Thunberg put it.

Back in 2017, my company installed hydrogen refuelling stations as part of a community energy project at Levenmouth in Fife. It showed what was possible in terms of energy storage, grid balancing, electricity generation and fuel for transport. Despite the benefits, it has yet to be rolled out more widely. Perhaps the current situation will refocus minds.

The pandemic has caused huge damage to our businesses and our education system, so what better way to build back than with a sharp focus on engineering skills? By driving forward investment in green hydrogen we will see public and private sectors training and developing a new generation of energy pioneers in high quality careers that last.

The UK risks missing the opportunity of green hydrogen. This is no time to be sluggish about moving away from fossil fuels. The change we want to see won’t happen overnight but we need to get cracking.

Bill Ireland, CEO of Logan Energy