Climate change: Hydrogen energy revolution has huge potential to decarbonise air travel, trains, home heating and more – Christine Jardine MP

Science has never excited me, not even at school.

Hydrogen-powered planes, like this one, already exist and they are getting bigger (Picture: Christoph Schmidt/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)

If real life was like the Big Bang Theory I would be the girl in the flat across the hall providing the non-scientific romantic interest.

But just at the moment one word, one substance, has fired my climate-conscious imagination: hydrogen.

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It is a scientific element which is almost unique in its ability to create controversy and provoke emotive response. For many people, it is synonymous with potential mass destruction.

But, as our planet faces one of the biggest challenges imaginable, in its colourless, odourless, non-toxic but highly combustible gas form, hydrogen could be at least part of the equation for beating climate change.

This past week the threat to our planet has forced its way back to the top of the agenda as catastrophic flooding across Europe was followed by storms which brought London to a halt and weather warnings for much of the country.

The scientific community seems clear that these now almost constant large-scale natural phenomena are the result of global warming.

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And as we prepare for the UN’s Cop26 climate summit this autumn, the argument has shifted from whether the problem is man-made to how does man survive it. Which brings me back to hydrogen, specifically green hydrogen.

A couple of years ago I visited the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) on Orkney.

The world’s leading facility for testing and validating wave and tidal energy devices in the sea, it was in the news again this week when the world’s most powerful tidal turbine began generating electricity off the coast connected to its network.

But it was the less heralded work that they are doing there with hydrogen which sparked my imagination, and fascination with its potential.

Wind, tidal and wave power all have vital roles to play in decarbonising and meeting energy demand from renewable sources.

But green hydrogen has the potential to power the next stage of the renewables revolution.

I was astonished to see how simply it could be produced by electrifying water and the vast array of uses to which we already know – and have bee proven at EMEC – that it can be put.

I would recommend both those who are sceptics and those who want to know more visit their website to see the astonishing variety of projects with which they are involved.

Picking just one at random presents you with potential which could, long term, be the key to one of our biggest dependencies on carbon fuels: air travel.

EMEC is supporting a project known as HyFlyer which has already achieved the world’s first flight of a commercial-grade hydrogen electric aircraft in September of last year.

ZeroAvia’s hydrogen-electric Piper Malibu Mirage successfully achieved a 20-minute flight from Cranfield airfield in the UK in which the only fumes it produced were water vapour.

The next phase of the project is targeting a successful commercial-grade flight of a 19-seater craft, potentially in 2023. The green hydrogen fuelling systems required for flight tests will be delivered by EMEC.

Perhaps the best indicator of the potential for hydrogen-powered flight is that the project is backed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Aerospace Technology Institute and Innovate UK.

There are of course other aircraft being developed across the globe and what is significant for me is the potential for commercial flights, perhaps initially short-haul domestic.

And while the possibility of carbon-free air travel is, for me, one of the most exciting possibilities, there are many more that are unlocked by green hydrogen.

Later this year my Clean Air Bill – which calls on our government to be legally obliged to meet the World Health Organisation’s target for beating air pollution – will go before parliament.

It is part of a raft of proposals which my party wants to see used to fight climate change, and investment in cutting-edge energy technologies like green hydrogen is central to that.

It can power our heating and drive our transport, and the UK has the potential to lead the world in the development of green hydrogen technologies and projects.

We have the scientific, geological, and renewable resources, but we need to find the political will.

Our aim should, my party believes, be to decarbonise the power sector completely by supporting renewables in household and community energy projects to create jobs and cut fossil-fuel imports.

We know that decarbonising heat will be difficult, but hydrogen may have a role to play alongside other technologies such as geo-thermal heat pumps.

And investment in research and development is needed if we're to break our dependence on gas for heating.

One area where we have already made some progress is in electric cars, although we need to be sure that the electricity being generated is clean, and green hydrogen has a part to play there.

There is so much more that can be done, and needs to be done, in decarbonising public transport where widespread investment can make a significant difference.

As a party, we believe that investment should include converting the rail network to ultra-low-emission technology, either electric or hydrogen by 2035.

But we are not the only ones. In Scotland the Children’s Parliament, as part of the Climate Change Assembly, has called for public transport to be more environmentally friendly with hydrogen as a preferred energy source.

As the hosts of the Cop26 later this year, the UK has the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to net-zero targets. To listen to the many voices calling for action. To take the lead. And showcase the work being done at EMEC and by others to provide solutions to our climate emergency.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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