Climate change: Why low-carbon 'blue' hydrogen could solve decarbonisation dilemmas

Reaching net zero is a controversial and complex business.

Controversial because, as we have seen throughout the UK, policies aimed at transitioning us faster, from ultra-low emission zones, to electric vehicles, to deposit return schemes, to replacing gas boilers, have proved to be political hot potatoes.

And complex, because there are multiple options, and it is all too easy to allow perfection to be the enemy of good as we work to reduce our emissions. That is a conundrum which can be controversial within the environmental movement, of which I regard myself as part. In essence, are we gradualists or fundamentalists? Are we in favour of a messy transition or a big bang switch to the perfect solution?

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As the founder of a Scottish start-up company which produces and uses green hydrogen produced from renewable electricity to replace diesel generators, one might expect that I’d be in the latter camp. However, I am not. I am extremely concerned that we are not moving anywhere near fast enough towards net zero, but am very firmly of the belief that we should be taking whatever pragmatic steps we can now to reduce emissions and start building momentum. In other words, I want progress to prevail over perfection.

A hydrogen filled balloon is used to replicate the sunA hydrogen filled balloon is used to replicate the sun
A hydrogen filled balloon is used to replicate the sun

A very clear manifestation of this gradualist versus fundamentalist argument which links into the hydrogen sector I am part of is the debate about how we decarbonise the heating of our homes; a monumental change critical to reaching net zero. It is widely accepted that the number one action should be home insulation to reduce energy demand yet despite the consensus on this, progress is woefully slow. It’s no surprise therefore that we have made little practical progress on the more controversial subject of decarbonising the three-quarters of UK households that rely on gas central heating.

In the red corner we have the proponents of electrification, primarily through heat pumps which offer a highly efficient form of heating. This offers a route to 100 per cent decarbonisation, but requires major investment in additional renewable electricity generating capacity and associated grid capacity to get it to our homes, at the same time as this is needed for electric vehicle charging. It will also require individual households to invest in these new heating systems which are currently more expensive than traditional gas boiler systems and which many will struggle to afford on their own.

There is laudable work underway to start moving us in this direction. But we will not get there tomorrow – and nor are we likely to get there before the Scottish Government’s target date to phase out new or replacement fossil fuel boilers in on-gas areas from 2030.

In the blue corner are the advocates of using hydrogen for heating, arguing we can use the existing gas grid and replacing boilers is easier and cheaper than installing a heat pump system. This is not without precedent as the old town gas networks our parents and grandparents will remember used a mixture of hydrogen, methane and carbon monoxide produced from coal gasification.

The UK National Infrastructure Commission weighed into the debate this month publishing a report which came out very strongly in favour of heat pumps over green hydrogen boilers. Having read the report I think that is broadly the right conclusion on a national basis, although their analysis was based on household data for England and Wales and therefore not informed by Scotland’s housing stock or climate. Scotland also has a number of standalone town gas networks like Stornoway where using locally produced hydrogen might be the right solution.

My bigger concern however is that by casting heat pumps versus hydrogen as an either or decision, some pragmatic use cases for hydrogen that could start making a difference relatively quickly will be lost.

We can blend approximately 20 per cent hydrogen into the existing gas network now without needing to change existing boilers or cookers. If the hydrogen used has a lower carbon footprint than the methane gas it replaces then this will deliver some household carbon emissions quickly without the need for major infrastructure and household heating systems replacement.

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The question is where does the hydrogen come from? Green hydrogen is produced by using renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen in a process called electrolysis. Powered by renewables, it doesn’t produce any carbon, but as the National Infrastructure Commission’s report highlighted, it will be decades before there is enough green hydrogen to make a significant dent on the gas network and if decarbonisation is the objective, then there are better things to do with that green hydrogen.

However, we could do this much earlier by using low carbon “blue” hydrogen produced from our existing North Sea gas supply. Blue hydrogen is produced using the same long established steam methane reformation (SMR) technology that produces the 70 million tons of industrial “grey” hydrogen used worldwide annually, but adds newer carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) technology to stop the CO2 produced by SMR being released into the atmosphere. The Climate Change Committee’s March 23 report indicates this could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60-85 per cent compared to unabated use of fossil gas, which is surely worth having while we deliver the longer-term change to electrification. Scotland already has world leading expertise in CCUS technology which could be honed and scaled up through the development of a Scottish blue hydrogen sector and then exported around the world.

Producing blue hydrogen now would also remove the main barrier to the development of a vibrant Scottish hydrogen application technology sector, which is a lack of hydrogen of any colour at a price that will encourage customers to switch from diesel. Incentives for the hydrogen sector are much greater now in Europe and America and we have lost Scotland’s early lead in this sector. While Scotland will undoubtedly become a green hydrogen production powerhouse in decades to come, the risk is that most of the technology needed will be imported. We made this mistake before at the early stage of the wind industry, but access now to affordable blue hydrogen could help Scotland’s hydrogen application technology sector innovate and grow and avoid history repeating itself in another sector where Scotland has world leading potential.

Unfortunately, in the current increasingly polarised debate on hydrogen, these wider economic arguments do not feature. Some in the red corner view blue hydrogen as a way of extending fossil fuel extraction and a green fig leaf for the fossil fuel industry. There is some truth in this, but the reality is we are not going to see oil and gas production switched off quickly. Not just because of the fossil fuel industry’s power and influence, but because we need to continue to meet the world’s energy needs during this transition, particularly in developing nations who did not create the global warming crisis we currently face.

So, the question for a pragmatic environmentalist like me is how we can make genuine progress, now, to reduce carbon emissions as much as we can and simultaneously sow the seeds for a more rapid transition towards net zero?

Blue hydrogen may not be perfect and the motivation driving some its proponents suspect, but it does provide a pathway to meaningful carbon savings now. Most importantly for my sector, it will help Scotland become an innovator and future exporter of hydrogen application and CCUS technology rather than an importer, creating the well-paid clean tech jobs needed for a Just Transition to a fully green economy.

For the time being, at least, sacrificing blue hydrogen at the altar of its imperfection makes no sense environmentally or economically which is why I find myself standing firmly in the blue camp.

In Scotland, we often talk about the competitive advantage we have in renewable energy and hydrogen. It’s all very well to talk about it, but if we sit on our hands waiting for perfection, often driven by the pursuit of ideological purity, we will lose it.

There’s an old Scottish proverb: Get what you can, and keep what you hae, that’s the way to get rich.

Let’s keep what we hae, and use it.

- David Amos is managing director of Plus Zero



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