Opinion: Boost Net Zero ambitions with sustainable hydrogen

Sustainable hydrogenSustainable hydrogen will be an important contributor to the decarbonisation of the economy, but it will need support says George Adams, SPIE UK

Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, results in carbon pollution, robbing us of a sustainable future. However, energy-efficiency, renewables, waste and green hydrogen are ways to secure a more economically stable and natural world. In order to ensure that sustainable hydrogen has a future in the UK, government and industry need to work alongside each other to create a robust market space for its consumption, infrastructure for its production and storage, and financial markets that offer the services and expertise needed for investment and trade.

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Extracting hydrogen can be done in two ways, through electrolysis or steam-methane reforming. Previously, both of these processes were run using fossil fuels. With the advent of renewable energy being produced at affordable prices, thanks to improvements in solar, wind and hydro power, however, sustainable hydrogen is now a viable fuel source. The UK government’s Ten Point Plan highlights how the low-carbon production of hydrogen operates symbiotically with the technology used for electrification. Whilst this is a positive step, these broad goals need to be followed up with a defined roadmap and a well-funded approach. If executed properly, hydrogen will have a central role to play in bringing the UK closer to its 2050 net zero emissions targets. Financial instruments to stimulate greater investment would also be of assistance.

Combining sustainable hydrogen with renewable energy technologies

The innovative integration of hydrogen with other technologies such as wind and solar is an approach that should be implemented. In doing so, there is the potential for buildings to produce their own sustainable energy. An example of this is how solar leaf technology, a form of solar collector that can be integrated on the external faces of a building, could be a source of energy for in-building electrolysis. The hydrogen produced could then power the building’s systems, making it largely self-sufficient. Although this may seem out of reach, the technology already exists to achieve this, and it is rapidly improving. The real difficulty lies in creating the regulatory and financial frameworks to encourage the implementation of such bleeding-edge applications, as it is only then that their commercial viability can be demonstrated.

The regulation of hydrogen projects

Regulation is also an obstacle that needs to be overcome. In order to counter the dangers posed by climate change and meet, or better exceed, the UK’s climate targets, the development of hydrogen technology needs to be improved at a fast pace. As an emerging technology being applied in novel ways, there are inherent risks, potential liabilities and also a lack of understanding of these risks.

Where there is perceived risk and a lack of expertise, support for progress is often lacking. Current hydrogen standards need to be built upon so that regulators, the hydrogen energy sector, and insurers understand how hydrogen deployments can be supported and the technology helped to develop. In doing this, it will ensure that regulation for using hydrogen energy is robust and insurers can confidently cover hydrogen projects.

Hydrogen and the UK’s heaviest industries

As the level of hydrogen production continues to increase, hydrogen will subsequently become more affordable. Therefore, the creation of a hydrogen market is essential and producers should use this time as a driving force to continue investing in production facilities, as well as focussing on lowering the cost of hydrogen applications.

Hydrogen energy will show great improvements in areas where emissions reductions are impractical or expensive. For example, the hydrogen bus in Aberdeen is a perfect example of how the technology can assist in decarbonising the transport industry. This also has clear implications for the automotive industry, as hydrogen will also help to lower the carbon levels of privately owned vehicles by offering an alternative where electrification is not viable. Additionally, hydrogen will effectively decarbonise the heating in buildings and industrial processes.

The use of hydrogen in steel production is a technically proven method that is receiving a great deal of attention both in the UK and elsewhere. Indeed, in Australia, an incredibly coal-rich nation, the chairman of Fortescue Metals recently argued that the nation’s industry had to move to producing ‘green steel’ using hydrogen. As the UK steel industry looks to redefine its role in the global marketplace, taking a lead in developing and exporting this technology could help it secure its future.

In order to meet the UK’s 2050 climate targets, the industry needs to move quicker than it already is. Hydrogen will be an important contributor to the decarbonisation of the economy, but it will need support. Net Zero will not be achieved overnight, as the government, the built environment, the energy industry and financial markets will need to use their collective resources to ensure that the government’s Ten Point Plan becomes an achievable strategy. If this goal is successful, then there will be a clear path towards achieving a greener future in transport, heavy industry and heating for hydrogen technologies.

George Adams, SPIE UK