How quickly can hydrogen help the UK get to Net Zero?

22nd July 2020 | Commercial Energy

Tipped by some to be the answer to cleaner emissions, hydrogen’s potential role in the UK’s energy future is complicated by questions about the cost and efficiency of production methods, storage options and use cases. Hydrogen is a gas with limited industrial applications, mainly associated with the manufacture of ammonia and fertilisers. However, the role it could play in a “Net Zero” UK energy mix has started to garner more attention. Hydrogen is non-toxic and abundant in the forms of water and natural gas. When consumed it only releases water vapour.

It has the potential to replace natural gas and become a reliable means of storing renewable energy across seasons. It can also complement lithium-ion batteries as a fuel replacement for heavier vehicles, including lorries, ships and trains. This becomes very important in the context of mounting environmental obligations.


2020 has already seen new EU emissions performance standards for passenger cars and updated marine sulphur emission reduction requirements from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), as well as policy movements against conventionally fuelled vehicles (eg clean air zones in city centres including London, Leeds, Bristol and Birmingham).

Hydrogen’s potential was recognised by the Committee on Climate Change in its May 2019 Net Zero Report, which stated that, “Moving beyond an 80% target changes hydrogen from being an option to an integral part of the strategy. By 2050, a new low-carbon industry is needed with UK hydrogen production capacity of comparable size to the UK’s current fleet of gas-fired power stations.”

National Grid echoed this view in its 2019 Future Energy Scenarios, noting, “In our Net Zero sensitivity, there is an increasing reliance on hydrogen, which can be burned without the release of carbon.”

Two opportunities for hydrogen:
1 – At present, the production of hydrogen, almost all of which is through fossil fuels, consumes 6% of the global supply of natural gas and 2% of the global supply of coal. The associated annual CO2 emissions from the production of hydrogen are equivalent to those of the UK and Indonesia combined. Cleaning up hydrogen for its own sake is no small challenge, let alone exploring its potential as a major energy source of the future.
2 – Hydrogen for industrial applications is almost entirely driven by steam methane reformation (SMR), as electrolysis consumes more energy than can be channelled into the hydrogen it produces. However, with the falling costs and growing penetration of renewable power, there has been considerable interest in exploiting hydrogen through green electrolysis

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