Key questions answered

Can hydrogen power local net zero plans?

Emma Jones

Research and Policy Manager

At a meeting of Ashden’s city-region network, experts Nixon Sunny (Imperial College) and David Joffe (Committee on Climate Change) shared insights on the role of hydrogen in cutting carbon emissions – including the implications for local and regional authorities. Ashden’s Emma Jones summarises the key messages.

To meet the UK’s climate change commitments, we will need virtually carbon-free energy by 2050 – in electricity generation but also in our buildings, industry and transport. A mix of energy efficiency and electrification based on zero-carbon electricity can take the UK a long way towards near-total decarbonisation, but it won’t be enough on its own. Producing hydrogen in low-carbon ways and using it to meet challenging demands (such as heavy transport, heat in industrial processes and heating buildings on freezing days) will be crucial.

When it comes decarbonising heat, there are important questions to be answered: what a cost-effective supply infrastructure might look like in a net zero environment; whether we should prioritise building more hydrogen storage or on the production of hydrogen; how to roll-out the infrastructure most affordably; and what will decide the final cost this transformation. Building hydrogen storage is key, and the price of natural gas is the single most important factor determining the long-term economic viability of hydrogen-based heat supply.

Where does hydrogen fit in the UK’s overall decarbonization plans? The priority should be to electrify where possible, but for hydrogen to be used where electrification is too expensive. Hydrogen will be more important in manufacturing and construction. Modelling of zero carbon pathways by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) suggests that there won’t be much hydrogen in the mix until 2030, but preparatory work should happen now so that it can be ramped up.

Hydrogen needs to be considered as part of Local Area Energy Plans; but will play a different role in different areas. For example, if there is hydrogen being used for industrial clusters, it might be used for heating homes as well. However, in an area without industrial demand (such as the south west), the situation would be quite different. Hydrogen is not going to be cheaper than fossil gas until 2050, so national incentives will be needed.

Even then, hydrogen will only play a relatively small role in reducing emissions levels.

Can hydrogen power local green transformation?

There is no role for hydrogen in terms of 2030 goals; there are too many unknowns. Where hydrogen is used before 2030, it is most likely to be used in industrial clusters – and particularly for industrial heat.

The graph below shows the CCC’s projected hydrogen demand by different sectors in 2050 according to five different net-zero scenarios. Buildings are a substantial source of hydrogen demand in most scenarios, and the largest in one of them.

So what’s the role of hydrogen in heating homes – both old and new? Is it an option in older properties that are harder to make efficient enough for electric heating? Stakeholders, including local councillors, are increasingly aware of hydrogen as a promising climate solution.

However, there are still many unknowns. National Grid and others are undertaking studies looking at the potential for hydrogen transport in existing transmission grid. We do not have conclusive evidence to indicate if it is suitable or not, but the Future Grid programme is looking at this in detail.

Depending on how the UK’s hydrogen infrastructure evolves, supply to industrial clusters could then create opportunities for use in homes. There is a need for ‘demand centres’ that ensure uninterrupted supply. In terms of hydrogen for new developments, we can’t just target hydrogen at particular homes – it has to be a regional solution. However, the CCC has recommended that the government ensure all boilers in buildings are ‘hydrogen-ready’ from 2025 at the latest, without pre-judging the respective roles of hydrogen and electrification.

If heat pumps aren’t suitable for particular properties, then consideration should instead be given to heat networks as a low carbon solution. And in every case, it’s vital we invest in insulating homes.

Next steps for hydrogen

The CCC has made key policy recommendations for the UK’s hydrogen plans:

  • Focus work on areas that cannot feasibly decarbonise without it.
  • Pursue proven solutions such as electrification in the 2020s, in parallel with developing hydrogen.
  • Set out a vision for contributions of hydrogen production from different routes5.

The committee has also urged more specific actions for the years ahead, including::

  • Incentivise hydrogen use in manufacturing, but on a level playing field with electrification.
  • Research and pilot projects around the use of hydrogen in buildings. These will create evidence for strategic decisions.
  • Build towards decisions on hydrogen powered, zero-carbon HGVs by undertaking large-scale trials.
  • Incentivise hydrogen and ammonia use in shipping, and aim to develop a ‘clean maritime cluster’ by 2030.
  • Make all new power capacity hydrogen and/or carbon capture and storage-ready as soon as possible, and by 2025 at the latest.

Hydrogen roll-out demands national-level incentives. But it will also require considerable coordination, including local and regional action. Deployment in different parts of the UK will be driven by regional supply opportunities, each area’s industrial hydrogen demands, and local preferences.

Ashden’s city-region network plans to revisit this topic on a regular basis. Our network of UK city-region and combined authority sustainability leads meets every two or three months, with each session focusing on a different topic requested by members. For more information contact emma.jones@ashden.org.

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