“Limited” Role for Hydrogen in UK Net Zero Transition

Select Committee report disagrees with Climate Change Committee on domestic heating, but sees storage, industrial and transport applications.

British parliamentarians have urged caution in the rush to embrace hydrogen as the fuel of tomorrow.

Suggestions that hydrogen could replace fossil fuels for a wide range of uses – including powering cars, lorries and domestic heating – may be unrealistic, according to a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

“It seems likely that any future use of hydrogen will be limited rather than universal,” said the report.

It added: “In our view, multiple changes will be needed to the way we obtain, use and store energy if we are to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Hydrogen will have its place in this portfolio.

“But we do not believe that it will be the panacea to our problems that might sometimes be inferred from the hopes placed on it.”

“The wonder fuel”

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and comes in three forms as an energy source. ‘Grey hydrogen’ is both the most common source of hydrogen at present and the least environmentally friendly, generated with natural gas or methane in a process that creates 2% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Blue hydrogen involves the capture and storage of the carbon released during the grey hydrogen process, and is labelled as low carbon. Green hydrogen uses renewably-generated electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen and is rated as zero carbon.

For some time, blue and green hydrogen have been touted as the answer to power generation in a low-carbon world. Industrial giant Siemens said: “Green hydrogen is a versatile energy carrier that can be applied to decarbonise a wide range of sectors.”

Deloitte, the professional services firm, declared: “Hydrogen is exciting because it can be used in several sectors.”

As long ago as June 1992, The International Journal of Hydrogen Energy described it as “the wonder fuel”.

The UK launched its hydrogen strategy in August 2021, with the aim of generating 10GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030, from both blue and green hydrogen sources.

Metering a major obstacle

But the MPs urged a sense of perspective in weighing up the prospects for hydrogen. Their list of the most likely applications included sectors that will be hard to electrify, such as some parts of the rail network; uses that do not require the creation of an extensive refuelling network – such as local bus services operating out of a fixed number of depots; and users adjacent to, or accessible to, places where hydrogen is produced, such as industrial clusters.

They said: “In addition, hydrogen has important potential uses as a means of energy storage and a source of power for energy-intensive industries like steel, glass and mineral production.”

The shipping sector is widely expected to make greater use of hydrogen-based fuels in the future, with the sector’s transition from fossil fuels being accelerated by regulation, notably in Europe. The MPs found that hydrogen had the potential to play a key role in the decarbonisation of a several areas of the transport sector – responsible for 24% of UK GHG emissions – but said electric vehicles had established a likely “unassailable” lead in passenger road transport.

The committee was at variance with the statutory independent Climate Change Committee (CCC), which has called for all new domestic boilers to be hydrogen-ready from 2025.

While acknowledging that it is not a “silver bullet” solution, the CCC has said hydrogen is a credible option to help decarbonise the UK energy system, although its role depends on early government commitment and improved support to develop the UK’s industrial capability.

The Science and Technology Committee said the question of metering hydrogen use was a major obstacle to the conversion of domestic homes from natural gas. Existing smart meters are designed to measure natural gas volumes that are much lower than the amount of hydrogen needed for the same energy output, thus larger capacity meters may be required.

Furthermore: “The energy regulator (Ofgem) has not worked on understanding hydrogen domestic metering and has not been able to say whether the current roll-out of smart meters will prove ineffective if hydrogen is used in domestic metering. Ofgem was also unable to provide cost estimates for how expensive a hydrogen-ready smart meter roll-out would be under different scenarios, or what the cost implications would be for the consumer.”

The Science and Technology Committee is chaired by Conservative MP Greg Clark and includes Labour’s Dawn Butler and Carol Monaghan of the Scottish National Party.


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