Open Letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson about Hydrogen Strategy

by David Cebon on 17th September 2021 in News archive

Open Letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson about Hydrogen Strategy

Dear Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Cc:
The Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng MP
The Rt Hon Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP

15 September, 2021

Re: A green hydrogen industry is vital – but only for things we can’t electrify

As independent and international experts in our respective fields, we are writing to share our thoughts on your government’s hydrogen strategy published on Tuesday 17th August.

It’s worth restating our full support for the UK’s world-leading net-zero legislation and your presidency of the upcoming COP26 summit. It is abundantly clear this government understands that, done well, decarbonisation can create jobs, future proof British industries, improve air quality and cut consumer bills.

The International Energy Agency has shown that to reach the global goal of net-zero emissions the priority needs to be shifting away from fossil fuels towards efficient electricity-based heating and transport systems, while stimulating the use of green hydrogen for hard to electrify sectors such as steel, chemicals and possibly shipping.

However, we are concerned that the UK government is considering widespread use of hydrogen in home heating, despite the availability of electric heat pumps that are more efficient and can already deploy at scale today, supporting thousands of jobs.

Because truly zero emission hydrogen is essential, but it does not yet exist at scale, we cannot expect hydrogen to have an impact on emissions or jobs within the next decade. Developing a hydrogen economy is a long and uncertain path forward, yet climate science shows us we need to act today to reach our net-zero goals.

At a time when countries around the world are developing their hydrogen strategies, and ahead of COP26, the world’s eyes are on the UK to lead by example. Our central recommendations at this critical time are to:

  • Scale up green hydrogen production for use in steel, chemicals, possibly shipping, and where grey hydrogen is currently being used such as for fertiliser production;
  • Prioritise the deployment of more efficient electric technologies for home heating and lorries, just as you are successfully doing with electric vehicles in passenger transport;
  • Take a cautious approach to blue hydrogen, avoiding lock-in to unsustainable fossil fuel infrastructure that could push net-zero out of reach

Please see below in Annex A for a justification for each of these recommendations.

In conclusion, a successful climate action plan is no longer just about the rapid build out of wind turbines and the phasing out of coal plants (essential as they are). It is also about deploying all the solutions we have within the right sectors, ensuring that we tap into all expertise available to guide these decisions. A well thought-through strategy on hydrogen is a key part of that plan.

To truly be world-leading on hydrogen as your strategy aims for, the UK needs to give clear market signals on the right type of hydrogen to pursue, and where it should and shouldn’t be used. This should start with prioritising heat pumps and energy efficiency in the forthcoming Heat and Buildings Strategy, and securing investment in green hydrogen for steel, chemicals, and possibly shipping.

Yours sincerely,

David Cebon, Tom Baxter, David Toke, Paul Martin, Bernard van Dijk,  Neil Hewitt, Jochen Bard. 

Annex A

We believe the key elements of the UK’s hydrogen approach which need to be reassessed are:

Prioritising electrification, energy efficiency and a focus on green hydrogen for heavy industries such as steel will bring jobs to the UK.

The UK has abundant renewable energy resources thanks to its investment in offshore wind, putting it in a good position to lead the development of green hydrogen. Vast new industries can be built around the manufacture and installation of heat pumps, electric cars, lorries and buses and vehicle charging infrastructure. Electrifying the economy will create efficiencies and significant productivity benefits. Equally, last month the world saw the first production of fossil free steel in Sweden, made from hydrogen and fossil free electricity. The UK is well positioned to create thousands of jobs in developing a more competitive and sustainable steel sector, and should not delay in prioritising scaling this up as soon as possible.

The UK needs to replace ‘grey’ hydrogen with ‘green’ hydrogen before considering other end use sectors or blending.

Grey hydrogen has been produced from natural gas for decades, but unlike blue hydrogen, the CO₂ emissions aren’t captured. The grey hydrogen currently used for chemical feedstocks globally accounts for about 3% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – not dissimilar to the amount generated by aviation.

The UK alone produces around 700,000 tonnes of grey hydrogen a year used to make fertiliser and to remove sulphur from oil. For every kilogram of grey hydrogen produced the resulting CO₂ emissions are around nine kilograms, meaning grey hydrogen produces around six million tonnes of CO₂ annually in the UK.

The case is sometimes made that we need to inject hydrogen into the domestic gas grid to stimulate demand, but this is false: there is already ample opportunity to deploy green hydrogen into facilities currently using grey hydrogen. Before considering markets that have existing electrification alternatives, or blending hydrogen into the natural gas grid, grey hydrogen needs to be urgently replaced with zero-emission green hydrogen made from wind and solar energy.

Hydrogen use in buildings and for road transport is not efficient and does not make economic sense.

Hydrogen is a not an efficient energy source, which is a fundamental flaw when comparing it with other electrification alternatives. Heating buildings with boilers using green hydrogen takes about six times more electricity than using electric heat pumps. That means six times the number of wind turbines or solar panels and a significantly higher cost for consumers. Similarly, it takes about 2.6 times more electricity to power a hydrogen fuel cell bus compared to the electricity used for an electric version of the same vehicle, and 3.3 times more electricity to power a hydrogen fuel cell lorry than one running on an Electric Road System.

Focusing on the wrong sectors of demand, heating and transport, would be an expensive mistake that can be avoided with other cheaper alternatives.

The UK must assess whether the lifecycle emissions of blue hydrogen is aligned with climate science – but not at the expense of delaying electrification.

The only truly zero emission hydrogen is that made by renewable energy, called green hydrogen. However, by choosing to support blue hydrogen made from natural gas and CCS, the UK must have stringent measures to assess the greenhouse gas emissions from the blue hydrogen manufacturing process and supply chain. Recent research from the US has highlighted the lack of understanding of the climate impacts of blue hydrogen, suggesting that these emissions can be as bad or even worse than simply burning natural gas.

While further assessments are needed for blue hydrogen, we caution that this should be done in conjunction with deploying existing electrification solutions in sectors that can be electrified. Assessing the lifecycle emissions of blue hydrogen is a complex issue that will involve auditing and possibly certifying hydrogen production plants, CCS facilities and most of the natural gas supply chain. This could take many years, when electric solutions like heat pumps and EVs are ready to deploy today.

Signatories

Professor David Cebon
Professor of Mechanical Engineering
University of Cambridge

Tom Baxter
Visiting Professor
University of Strathclyde

Dr David Toke
Reader in Energy Politics
Department of Politics and International Relations
University of Aberdeen

Paul Martin
Independent Chemical Engineer, specialising in hydrogen and syngas
Spitfire Research

Bernard van Dijk
Lecturer Airplane Performance
University of Applied Science
Amsterdam

Professor Neil Hewitt
Head of School, Belfast School of Architecture and the Built Environment
Director, Centre for Sustainable Technologies
Ulster University

Jochen Bard
Director of Energy Process Technology Division
Fraunhofer IEE