Hydrogen presents a huge number of possibilities to support UK decarbonisation goals. Low carbon hydrogen will be critical for meeting the UK’s target to be net zero by 2050 and is intended to be used as a vital energy source. Analysis by the department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) suggests 250-460TWh of hydrogen could be needed in 2050. Hydrogen offers a means to combatting climate change immediately as it is a possible solution to several energy needs. Hydrogen has the potential to help decarbonise the transport sector quicker, support a growth in battery technology and could be used as a bridging fuel whilst further innovation continues to find other low carbon technologies and strategies.
The role of hydrogen in the path to net zero
COP26 has four main targets to achieve including securing net zero by 2050 and keeping 1.5 degrees within reach. Countries are being encouraged to deliver ambitious aims by 2030 by accelerating the disuse of fossil fuels, increasing investment in renewables, ending deforestation, and speeding the switch to electric vehicles. Hydrogen could play an important role in the transition to net zero with demand expected to grow six-fold by 2050. The key pillars of decarbonising the global energy system are energy efficiency, behavioural change, renewables, electrification, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, and hydrogen-based fuels. Hydrogen fuel use will be particularly useful in sectors that struggle to decarbonise where electrification is hard to implement such as heavy industry, including chemical production and steel manufacturing, heavy duty transport, shipping, and aviation.
The UK is a world leader as the first major economy to legislate for net zero. Sharing cutting-edge research of technological developments, developing common standards and regulation could lay the groundwork for a competitive global hydrogen market. COP26 provides a unique opportunity for the UK to demonstrate climate leadership by bringing together public and private representatives who recognise the crucial role of hydrogen in tackling emissions. The UK’s ambition for 5GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 is ambitious and would provide the equivalent of the amount of gas consumed by 3m households in the UK each year. The UK Hydrogen Strategy provides a roadmap on how these targets will be met and predictions of how the hydrogen economy will evolve.
Currently, there is almost no low carbon production of hydrogen across the globe, but momentum is starting to pick up with real-world action. By 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects electricity and hydrogen-based fuels to account for more than 70% of transport energy demand. Surface transport is currently the UK’s largest greenhouse gas emitting sector, with emissions remaining broadly consistent since 1990. Analysis by the Committee on Climate Change found that surface transport comprised 22% of total emissions in 2019. Hydrogen is an option for the decarbonisation of road transport, particularly for long-range and heavy vehicle types, with hydrogen buses in operation in London and Aberdeen. An estimated 100 hydrogen refuelling stations will be required by 2035 to decarbonise heavy goods vehicles in line with current targets. Meanwhile the Government has also announced that diesel trains should be phased out by 2040. The first hydrogen powered train ‘Hydroflex’ was unveiled at COP26 to showcase the technology. The Hydrogen Council predict that hydrogen is to contribute over 20% of global carbon abatement by 2050 but strong public-private collaboration is required to make it a reality. A swift uptake of renewable and low carbon hydrogen is needed by 2030 along with economy-wide solutions by 2050.
Hydrogen in the UK
In March 2021 the UK Government committed to investing £3m for the UK’s first ever hydrogen transport hub in Tees Valley. It will bring together leading figures from government, industry, and academia to focus research and to test and trial across all transport modes. The hub aims to be open by 2026, creating up to 5,000 jobs. It will help to recognise the role of hydrogen in meeting 2050 net-zero ambitions and provide a facility for R&D. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said, “The hub will establish the UK as a global leader in hydrogen technology, paving the way for its use across all transport modes and propelling us towards our net-zero goals.” Once built, the plant will supply nearby firms with energy and will support local manufacturing and logistics businesses to transition from natural gas and diesel energy sources. It comes after two major blue hydrogen projects were announced for Teesside which will store carbon emissions beneath the North Sea.