Simon Williams: Hydrogen has the potential to change the way we use, store and balance energy

Very soon, the Committee on Climate Change is expected to call for a ‘net zero’ carbon emission target for 2050. It underlines how serious rapid global warming is and how we should all act collectively as quickly as possible, but even in the face of doomsday predictions there is increasing evidence that an alternative future can be realised, using technology that is both clean and green.

Simon Williams is, Legal Director, Energy and Infrastructure, Gillespie MacAndrew LLP

It’s not just big business, multinational conglomerates or heavy industry causing this harm. Within the scale of our modern lives, much of the infrastructure is adding to the toll on our planet. And this is why there is an impetus to find new, clean sources of energy for our private vehicles, public transport and homes using renewable energy sources. Importantly, it’s now clear that the costs of some of the key transition technologies are much lower than 2008 thinking. Indeed, in some sectors, it will be cheaper to decarbonise them than not.

In terms of transport, we have seen recent announcements of Ultra Low Emissions Zones in London and Glasgow which will help combat the worst areas for air quality and it is important that other urban areas follow suit. Great advances have been made in renewable energy generation. Globally, we understand that more than half of all new electricity capacity installed is renewable. Offshore renewables potential around our northern coast and islands has spearheaded projects that the UK, and Scotland in particular, hopes will keep us at the forefront of research and development, eg floating turbines and provide a solution to our energy needs. To reach its full potential, the focus must be not just on generation but also ways to effectively store energy for later reuse.

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Decarbonising our electrical, heat and transport systems is a necessity, and one option drawing increasing interest is the use of hydrogen-based systems. There is a huge opportunity for the UK to achieve a major hydrogen and fuel cell economy – on a par with the kind emerging in Japan, US and Germany.

Hydrogen has the unique potential to change the way we use, store and balance energy. The Scottish Government has recently set out the opportunities for hydrogen in its Energy Networks Vision, and is now mapping locations in Scotland where hydrogen projects are best suited. With Germany already operating the world’s first hydrogen-fuelled train, it would be great if Scotland could be next in line!

Hydrogen buses are operating in Aberdeen and will be soon be in Dundee. A passenger ferry powered by fuel cell technology is under construction at Ferguson Marine in Glasgow, and on the Orkney island of Eday, the SurfnTurf project brings together two power sources – tidal and wind – with equipment (ITM Power electrolysers) to convert and store energy as hydrogen and ultimately used to power ferries.

Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL) is manufacturing hydrogen fuel cell (FC) buses – on show at the All Energy Conference in May. Such technology can offer long range zero emission capability if suitable refuelling infrastructure is put in place with sustainably sourced hydrogen. To create the technology, ADL’s engineers collaborated with hydrogen and FCintegrators Arcola Energy. Hydrogen is fed from secure tanks to a fuel cell system where it is converted to electricity. No external battery charging is required and the vehicle’s only emission is water vapour.

The Scottish Parliament certainly sees potential for jobs, the economy, the environment and the well-being of all of us by acting now to meet climate targets. The Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill has just completed stage 1 and there is an acknowledgement that investment in and support for innovation, knowledge exchange, technology transfer and support to key sectors such as agriculture and transport will be vital to meeting the targets.

The Scottish Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (SHFCA) estimates current projects with significant hydrogen and fuel cell (H&FC) content in Scotland are worth more than £100m, with £70m of this based in Orkney. The latest project for these islands is the ReFLEX project which will use a new Virtual Energy System (VES) to link and monitor electricity, transport and heat systems powered by local renewable energy, to enable the charging of flexible storage and battery technologies.

Action on climate change must come from all levels: individual, business and government; and hydrogen will play an important role in our 2050 targets – it is just a question of how large this role will be.

Simon Williams is legal director, energy and infrastructure, Gillespie MacAndrew LLP