Speaking at the Conservative party conference, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged that offshore wind farms would generate enough electricity to power every home in the UK by 2030, also announcing upgrades of £160 million to ports and factories for building turbines to help the country “build back greener.” However, scaling up to the envisioned 40GW of offshore wind generation will require investments of about £50 billion. The UK needs to include hydrogen in its journey to net-zero emissions.
Also part of Johnson’s plans are a focus on hydrogen-fuelled trucks, trains and aircraft, retrofitting homes and spending more money on carbon capture and storage technology. Longer-term goals include expanding to other sectors the use of hydrogen as a source of power in the UK.
This is because moving to wind power and away from fossil fuels is not that simple. Some uses of gas cannot be replaced by renewable power; gas is used to both back up renewables and power heavy industry and problems with intermittency and intensity persist. Concerns arise when on a still, cloudy day, solar panels don’t generate electricity and wind turbines don’t turn. Further, according to the Financial Times, batteries are not yet the answer- if London were to rely on batteries for just a week, it would need to buy every battery produced in the world for the next two years.
Secondly, electricity is unable to provide the heat required for heavy industry. Cement kilns and steel furnaces- sectors which cause more than 20% of global emissions- operate at over 1000°C. Therefore, clean hydrogen would arguably be the best choice for replacing gas when taking into effect economics and emissions. When hydrogen is used as a fuel, only water is produced.
Currently, the cheapest way of making clean hydrogen is by converting it from natural gas, and then capturing and storing the leftover carbon. This “blue hydrogen” eliminates 95% of emissions compared to gas used in power stations, furnaces and kilns. Norway has been utilising this form of energy for decades.
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Further, by building on hydrogen infrastructure, it paves the way for 100% carbon-free “green hydrogen,” produced by electrolysing water with renewable power. However, both blue and green hydrogen are extremely expensive; blue hydrogen costs more than twice as much as natural gas. Energy providers will need to work with the government to share the costs.
However, with greater scale and technology, hydrogen may one day cost less than gas. 10 years ago, wind power needed high electricity prices, but projects such as Dogger Bank now compete head on with fossil fuels. The UK will need to implement the right incentives to power a clean economic recovery post-COVID-19 while reducing emissions closer to net zero.