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Green hydrogen 'transitioning from a shed-based industry' says researcher as the UK hedges its H2 strategy

Am I blue? Am I green? Government report isn't quite transparent

The UK government has released its delayed hydrogen strategy which – in a strange move for a colourless gas – hedges its bets between green and blue.

The government claimed the UK-wide hydrogen economy could be worth £900m by 2030, potentially £13bn by 2050. In the next 10 years the universe's most abundant element could decarbonise energy-intensive industries like chemicals, oil refineries, power and heavy transport by helping these sectors move away from fossil fuels, it claimed.

Light, energy-intensive and carbon-free "hydrogen-based" solutions could make up to 35 per cent of the UK's energy consumption by 2050, helping the nation meet its target of net-zero emissions by 2050, according to the government paper.

But navigation from the current state of the hydrogen industry to that worthy destination might require some tricky manoeuvres. The vast majority of industrial hydrogen is extracted from natural gas [PDF] in a process that releases greenhouse gasses and requires energy, which often comes from carbon fuels.

In theory, the simplest way to overcome this problem is to use renewable electricity to extract hydrogen from water using electrolysis – so called green hydrogen. The problem is, although it works in the lab, the process has yet to be industrialised on a scale comparable with other fuels in the global energy supply chain. Green hydrogen received a fillip as researchers found methods to make electrolysis more efficient at lower capital costs.

An alternative is to continue to use natural gas as a source of hydrogen but to capture and store the methane and CO2 byproduct, and use renewable energy to power the process. But a recent study found making blue hydrogen was 20 per cent worse for the climate than just using fossil gas over its entire lifecycle.

Light on detail – and how are we producing it?

The UK government is hedging its bets, its strategy outlining a "twin track" approach to supporting multiple technologies including green and blue hydrogen production.

Critics have jumped on the plans for blue hydrogen. Doug Parr, the chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, told The Guardian that extracting large quantities of hydrogen from natural gas would lock the UK "into costly infrastructure that is expensive and … may be higher carbon than just burning the gas."

Speaking to The Register, Malte Jansen, Imperial College London research associate, said: "We may have reached a point in the battling climate change where I wouldn't want to be dogmatic about one or another. But if either technology delivers and fixes to climate problems by 2050, then that's good."

While blue hydrogen faced the challenge of capturing CO2 effectively and avoiding methane leakage, green hydrogen production was still maturing, he said.

"The industry is transitioning from a shed-based industry to a full-blown, highly automated one. I'm not dismissing the sort of level of technical intricacy, but there's still a lot of steps in the production of electrolysis that involve manual labour that could be automated."

While the UK government commitment could help the industry invest and raise capital, as other nations release hydrogen strategies – Germany already has one for example – the balance is likely to be in favour of green hydrogen, Malte said.

"I do not see the same level of push on blue hydrogen, people are talking about it but not just quite on the same global scale with that same level of excitement as green hydrogen," he said.

While it was a good start, the UK strategy needs more detail, Malte said.

But industries might have to wait a little longer for vital details. The strategy was already delayed because of Parliament's summer recess.

What the government has now published is a public consultation on a preferred hydrogen business model leaving many pieces of the jigsaw yet to find their places.

These include how it might build a system similar to the offshore wind industry's Contract for Difference, which gave investors confidence despite fluctuating energy prices. At the same time, the government is consulting on the design of the £240m Net Zero Hydrogen Fund, which aims to support the commercial deployment of new low carbon hydrogen production plants across the UK. Details on that and the blue and green hydrogen strategy would emerge in 2022 on the government's production strategy. ®

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