“Britain will become the Qatar of hydrogen,” Boris Johnson declared as the government laid out its 368-page strategy for reaching net zero emissions by 2050. It sounds magnificent, but what does it mean in practice?
To meet its net zero targets, the UK needs to convert from an economy that is 80% powered by fossil fuel and 20% electric to one that is 80% electric and 20% “green” hydrogen (produced using renewable power) over the next several decades. Hydrogen is needed to replace fossil fuels for powering industrial sectors such as steel, as well as fuelling heavy transport. Importantly, it is also necessary to replace the huge volumes of “grey” hydrogen manufactured from natural gas that are currently used in fuel and fertiliser manufacture.
In addition, hydrogen has a role to play in heating. All we hear about is the need to install heat pumps, though they are unlikely to be appropriate for flats and many other types of home. The only efficient way to heat such buildings is from a central source of heat, which is unlikely to be a heat pump. The alternative is to convert the natural gas grid to hydrogen for powering combined heat and power installations like they are developing in Japan. The UK government is experimenting with a “hydrogen village” trial, but won’t decide on the role of hydrogen in heating until 2026.
Whatever the government decides about heating, we’ll still need a lot of hydrogen. To make green hydrogen in the UK will require a huge amount of electric power. And this is on top of the fact that the shift to running 80% of the country on electricity is already going to require vastly more power – perhaps two to three times as much as is currently being produced.