By Adam Vaughan
The UK government has backed a plan to use the production of hydrogen from fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage to clean up heavy industry. This plan comes despite concerns that the technology does not capture all CO2 emissions, remains commercially unproven and perpetuates natural gas extraction.
Under a 120-page hydrogen strategy published on 17 August, which follows in the wake of similar plans by the EU and other countries last year, the UK laid out how it will boost hydrogen production. A strategic decision on the role hydrogen could take in decarbonising heating in buildings will also be taken within 5 years, it said.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial (BEIS) said it is mulling subsidies similar to ones for offshore windfarms to bring down the cost of both blue hydrogen, made from natural gas but with most of the CO2 captured, and green hydrogen, where renewable electricity is used with electrolysers that produce hydrogen from water.
“It’s not a surprise the UK is backing both,” says Anise Ganbold at Aurora Energy Research in the UK. “It’s what the UK has been pushing for and not a surprise given how strong the gas lobby is. At the moment, it is cheaper to make hydrogen from blue, but we don’t think that will last for long. We think green will be cheaper by the 2030s.” Blue hydrogen is opposed by some environmentalists partly because at best it only captures 95 per cent of the CO2, raising questions over its role in hitting net zero targets.
It is also untested at a commercial level, though Norwegian energy firm Equinor has plans to build a blue hydrogen plant near Hull in north-east England. Jess Ralston at Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit in the UK, says: “The government should be wary about being lobbied by the gas industry and committing too heavily to blue hydrogen, which still uses fossil fuels in its production and relies on [the] not-yet-ready technology [of] carbon capture and storage to reduce its emissions.” Storing the carbon at sea, where the UK has the most storage capacity, could also be expensive, Ganbold adds.
The government argues this “twin track” will help the UK meet a target of 5 gigawatts of low-carbon hydrogen production by 2030, up on what it says is “almost no” capacity now. “Today marks the start of the UK’s hydrogen revolution,” said energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng in a statement.
In terms of using the hydrogen, Ralston says it could be vital for decarbonising heavy industry, in particular steel production. However, she fears its use in home heating could delay action on alternatives, such as electrification through heat pumps.
The UK’s strategy reveals that the government is considering mixing hydrogen in with natural gas supplies. BEIS estimates a 20 per cent blend of hydrogen would lower emissions 7 per cent, but Ralston thinks that is not enough. “At the end of the day, any proportion of hydrogen blend with fossil gas in the grid is just not compatible with net zero and it’s not yet clear how effective hydrogen will be, nor how much it will cost,” she says.
According to the published strategy, the government will set a standard for low-carbon hydrogen that is “consistent with net zero”. Ganbold said that will be important, in part because Scotland has made clear it wants to export low-carbon hydrogen, and a standard will help trade.
BEIS also said it is consulting on a £240 million fund for hydrogen production plants, and believes a UK-wide hydrogen economy could create around 9000 jobs by 2030. The strategy envisages 20-35 per cent of the UK’s energy consumption coming from hydrogen by mid-century.
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