“Britain will develop into the Qatar of hydrogen,” Boris Johnson declared as the federal government laid out its 368-page technique for reaching web zero emissions by 2050. It sounds magnificent, however what does it imply in apply?
To satisfy its web zero targets, the UK must convert from an financial system that’s 80% powered by fossil gas and 20% electrical to 1 that’s 80% electrical and 20% “inexperienced” hydrogen (produced utilizing renewable energy) over the subsequent a number of a long time. Hydrogen is required to switch fossil fuels for powering industrial sectors equivalent to metal, in addition to fuelling heavy transport. Importantly, it is usually crucial to switch the large volumes of “gray” hydrogen manufactured from pure fuel which are at present utilized in gas and fertiliser manufacture.
As well as, hydrogen has a job to play in heating. All we hear about is the necessity to set up warmth pumps, although they’re unlikely to be acceptable for studios and lots of different kinds of house. The one environment friendly option to warmth such buildings is from a central supply of warmth, which is unlikely to be a warmth pump. The choice is to transform the pure fuel grid to hydrogen for powering mixed warmth and energy installations like they’re growing in Japan. The UK authorities is experimenting with a “hydrogen village” trial, however gained’t resolve on the function of hydrogen in heating till 2026.
No matter the federal government decides about heating, we’ll nonetheless want plenty of hydrogen. To make inexperienced hydrogen within the UK would require an enormous quantity of electrical energy. And that is on prime of the truth that the shift to working 80% of the nation on electrical energy is already going to require vastly extra energy – maybe two to a few occasions as a lot as is at present being produced.
Even the grid because it stands nonetheless must be decarbonised significantly. On common, some 40% of UK electrical energy is produced utilizing pure fuel plus some coal. When wind energy fell in September, this dependency elevated. Till the UK grid is carbon-free, any inexperienced hydrogen produced will solely be 60% inexperienced – and the identical goes for all the things else, from electrical automobiles to the ability coming into folks’s properties.
The UK subsequently wants to make sure that sufficient photo voltaic, wind and nuclear energy is being generated to negate the necessity for electrical energy from fossil fuels. The UK intends to construct extra producing capability within the type of offshore wind and photo voltaic, however the planning system is unlikely to approve producing on the huge land and sea areas required to cowl the whole transition.
Nuclear energy is one reply, however it’s sufficiently costly that the federal government is but to discover a manner of attracting many international buyers. Seven nuclear energy stations present about 7% of the UK’s power requirement, with two because of shut in 2022 and just one new one going forward at Hinkley Level in Somerset. This helps to elucidate why the UK intends to greater than triple the quantity of energy it could import from different nations through interconnectors by 2030.
For the renewable energy that it does produce, the UK can even want a considerable amount of long-duration power storage for intervals when the wind doesn’t blow and the solar doesn’t shine. This won’t be lithium-ion batteries, since their storage-durations aren’t lengthy sufficient, however, for instance, iron stream batteries or nuclear heat-energy shops. The federal government is making £68 million accessible for 2 energy-storage demonstrations, though the UK is way behind the US on this. American firms are already promoting these programs.
Who will dominate hydrogen
The UK might nonetheless develop into a frontrunner in changing industrial processes like steel-making and in addition house heating to hydrogen energy. However the actuality is that a lot of the ability for producing inexperienced hydrogen will come from overseas. Not solely that, a lot of the inexperienced hydrogen will most likely come from overseas too.
With regards to producing low-cost energy and low-cost inexperienced hydrogen, neither the UK nor different European nations will be capable to compete with Saudi Arabia and north African nations like Morocco. These nations can harness significantly extra renewable energy due to the Atlantic commerce winds blowing throughout their coast (north Africa), and have a lot larger sunshine ranges (all of those nations).
Already Saudi Arabia is engaged on a plan to make electrical energy very cheaply from sunshine by first changing it to hydrogen after which to ammonia to be shipped to nations together with the UK, the place it will likely be transformed again to hydrogen.
Morocco already has a large quantity of photo voltaic, wind and battery storage. It’s now engaged on utilizing a few of this to provide hydrogen to ship to Europe. In the meantime, there’s a plan for an interconnector from Morocco to the UK, with cables because of begin being laid in 2025.
Different north African nations have nice potential for related causes: they’ve massive areas of desert, have virtually thrice the photo voltaic mild incidence of Europe, and don’t have points with planning permission or farmland being taken up by photo voltaic panels. Photo voltaic and wind energy costs within the UK are certainly falling quickly, however they won’t be able to compete with these nations in the long run.
So the UK could but achieve its ambition to develop into “international Britain”, however it’s most likely going to be leaning closely on US battery know-how, and Saudi and north African hydrogen and clear energy. The one option to keep away from growing the UK’s power dependency on different nations could be at an enormous value to shoppers. It’s one factor to come back out with eye-catching slogans about turning into a world pressure in hydrogen, however the actuality goes to be considerably totally different.
Brian Scott-Quinn is affiliated with Brussels-based Excessive Degree Group (HLG) on financing the commercial transition