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Hydrogen is a credible option for the future. The UK must now prepare for the key decisions on zero-carbon energy.

Hydrogen is a credible option to help decarbonise the UK energy system but its role depends on early Government commitment and improved support to develop the UK’s industrial capability, says a new report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

The CCC’s Hydrogen in a low-carbon economy report finds that hydrogen can make an important contribution to long-term decarbonisation if combined with greater energy efficiency, cheap low-carbon power generation, electrified transport and new ‘hybrid’ heat pump systems, which have been successfully trialled in the UK.

There remain significant obstacles to the decarbonisation of industry, transportation and heat even as the UK has focused on cleaning up electricity generation over the last decade. A combination of energy efficiency and the electrification of the economy can continue to reduce UK emissions substantially. However, this is not enough to reach full decarbonisation in every sector.

The potential of hydrogen as a zero-carbon energy source has always been recognised, yet in previous assessments it has been impractical or overly expensive to roll out at scale. The report finds hydrogen could replace natural gas in parts of the energy system, where electrification is not feasible or is prohibitively expensive, for example in providing heat on colder winter days, industrial heat processes and back-up power generation.

Hydrogen should be viewed as a credible option in the next stage of the UK’s energy transition.

The report offers a new impetus for early Government action. The report’s key recommendations are:

  • Government must commit to developing a low-carbon heat strategy within the next three years. This would encourage commercial investment in producing hydrogen for one of its key uses: providing heating for buildings and industry.
  • Significant volumes of low-carbon hydrogen should be produced in a carbon capture and storage (CCS) ‘cluster’ by 2030 to help the industry grow. Hydrogen should be produced for applications that require no major infrastructure changes (e.g. power generation, injection in to the gas network and depot-based transport).
  • Government must support the early demonstration of the everyday uses of hydrogen in order to establish the practicality of switching from natural gas to hydrogen. This requires the development of pilot projects for transport, industry and buildings uses.
  • There is low awareness amongst the general public of reasons to move away from natural gas heating to low-carbon alternatives. There needs to be public engagement on the future of the UK’s heating choices. However, the window to engage with people is closing.
  • A strategy should be developed for low-carbon heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) which encourages a move away from fossil fuels and biofuels to zero-emission solutions by 2050. Decisions about how to achieve this are required in the second half of the 2020s. Therefore, demonstrations of hydrogen HGVs will need to be made soon.

However, hydrogen is not a ‘silver bullet’ solution. The report also explores some commonly-held misconceptions, highlighting the need for careful planning:

  • Switching the gas grid to 100% hydrogen is impractical for zero carbon heat. The UK has an extensive natural gas grid but it’s unlikely that the best approach will be to reuse the grid entirely and burn hydrogen in domestic boilers as we do with natural gas today. The report explores a variety of credible options involving a mix of technologies (at similar costs) to provide low-carbon heat.
  • Producing bulk hydrogen from renewable electricity is expensive. Hydrogen generated by ‘surplus’ electricity from renewable sources is unlikely to match the potential scale of demand. Were we to build dedicated renewables capacity for ‘bulk’ hydrogen production through electrolysis, it would be very challenging and unnecessarily expensive. Using natural gas (with CCS) will help to scale the industry and offer a cost-effective route to produce lower volumes of hydrogen.
  • Hydrogen from fossil fuels is not zero-carbon even when using CCS. Imported natural gas is likely to be the main energy source in hydrogen production. However, using natural gas is not a zero-carbon process, even when the carbon is removed (‘reformed’), captured and stored.

The CCC will continue to monitor how technological developments could impact the future role of hydrogen in the UK’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

Lord Deben, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), said:

“Hydrogen has the potential to contribute to near-zero carbon energy emissions if used strategically. The Government must now decide whether it wishes to develop a UK hydrogen option, taking decisions now that will see the first deployment in the 2020s. This must be in parallel with efforts to improve energy efficiency, build further low-cost renewables and get carbon capture and storage underway. The time for the Government to move from theory to practice has arrived.

“Most exciting of all is the prospect of producing low-carbon heat; using smart hybrid heat pumps in combination with natural gas in the short-term, with the potential for hydrogen in the long-term.

“The future now rests on Government making a quick decision and fully committing to low-carbon heat within the next three years. This is important to achieving the existing 2050 emissions target, but even more important as we consider whether it is possible for the UK to reach ‘net-zero’ emissions in the future.”