The dawn of the hydrogen economy

Hydrogen is the most abundant gas in the universe. It is also an effective fuel that can be used to heat our homes, generate electricity and power our transport – and it can do all this without emitting gases that contribute to global heating or air pollution.

In its 2019 progress report to parliament, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recognised that hydrogen has an important role to play in decarbonising the UK. To enable Government to achieve its net-zero emissions target by 2050, the CCC stressed the need to develop a strategy for hydrogen use, production and infrastructure as a priority for 2020. Around the same time, the International Energy Agency (IEA) also published an in-depth report on the state of play of clean hydrogen stating that “the time is right to tap into hydrogen’s potential to play a role in a clean, secure and affordable energy future.”

Although abundant throughout the universe, hydrogen does not occur naturally as a gas on Earth. One method of producing hydrogen for use as fuel is to extract it from natural gas using a process called steam methane reformation (SMR). This process produces carbon dioxide so will require carbon capture and storage in order to truly see the carbon reductions.

Green hydrogen, however, can be generated from water using electrolysers and electricity generated from renewable sources, leaving just oxygen as the by product.

Hydrogen to heat our homes

Decarbonising our homes is one of the biggest challenges we face in meeting the net-zero target. Making changes to homes can be prohibitively expensive for homeowners with a lot of  personal investment of time and effort, and potential disruption.

Trials funded by the Network Innovation Programme, however, have begun to inject hydrogen into a live gas network to start to blend it with domestic gas at quantities up to 20% by volume. This is a significant step towards decarbonising our heat and offers a low-risk, low-cost pathway to carbon reduction with no involvement required by residents.

Blending at these levels requires little gas network intervention and is deemed to be as safe as natural gas. If deployed in networks across the UK, the hydrogen and natural gas blend could potentially have the effect of lowering carbon levels equivalent to removing 2.5 million cars from the road.

The relationship between hydrogen and electricity

Hydrogen is a very effective energy store. When there is excess renewable energy available to the grid, it can be deployed to generate hydrogen. This has the potential to provide much-needed flexibility to grid operators, helping to balance the grid by increasing or reducing demand. In return, electricity system operators like National Grid have various mechanisms to pay for these flexibility services generating revenue for a hydrogen storage operator.

Large scale hydrogen storage facilities are currently rare but do hold huge promise for stabilising the grid and accommodating increasing amounts of variable renewable energy on the system.

Hydrogen as a fuel for transport

Hydrogen is a clean fuel and when used for transport it not only reduces carbon but also improves air quality and decreases noise pollution.

Using hydrogen to fuel transport has definitely been generating interest recently. With no emissions except plain water from the tail pipe, fast refuelling times and the ability to travel hundreds of kilometres on a single tank of fuel, hydrogen-fuelled vehicles have been turning heads in councils across the country.

Refuelling stations in the UK are still few and far between, so improvements need to be made to the infrastructure to facilitate uninterrupted travel across the length and breadth of the country. But refuelling stations like the one at Kittybrewster in Aberdeen are enabling growing numbers of buses, road sweepers, refuse trucks, cars and vans to make use of this clean fuel.

For larger, heavier vehicles that travel long distances, the potential to reduce carbon emissions is huge. Using hydrogen removes the need for large numbers of heavy batteries on board an already heavy vehicle. It also delivers a range of around 350km which is comparable to that of a diesel lorry and significantly higher than its battery-powered cousin. And with refuelling times as short as 10 minutes, and very low engine noise it is looking increasingly attractive as a fuel for haulage and logistics companies.

Not if, but when

There is little doubt that the hydrogen economy is coming and that it is going to make a significant contribution to carbon reduction across the three core areas of heat, electricity and transport. The drive for net zero emissions is taking us to a tipping point where demand for large-scale storage facilities and refuelling stations will stimulate the development of infrastructure across the country. The result – a network of hydrogen hubs that can contribute to the gas network, support the grid and refuel a full range of transport options.

The dawn of the hydrogen economy will soon pass as this clean fuel becomes a fundamental part of our energy system in the future.

This is an exciting sector to work in. At Resonates, we are using our knowledge and experience in clean energy and technology to provide marketing and PR expertise to leading organisations driving forward technology and infrastructure to realise the potential of hydrogen.