As part of its highly controversial new Energy Security Strategy, the UK government last night announced an “ambition” for up to 10GW of hydrogen production capacity by 2030 — double the previous target unveiled under its national hydrogen strategy in August 2021.
As we all know, the devil is in the detail, and at the moment, our information is limited to just two sentences in a government statement — which reveal a lot more than it might initially appear.
“We will aim to double our ambition to up to 10GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030, with at least half coming from green hydrogen and utilising excess offshore wind power to bring down costs,” said the statement. “This will not only provide cleaner energy for vital British industries to move away from expensive fossil fuels, but could also be used for cleaner power, transport and potentially heat.”
Let’s break down that down.
If half of the 10GW comes from green hydrogen, we can presume that the other 5GW will be from blue hydrogen — derived from natural gas with carbon capture and storage.
Alternatives would be pink hydrogen from nuclear, but given the attention given elsewhere in the strategy to atomic power, it seems unlikely that the government would not mention this if it were the case. And while “low-carbon hydrogen” could theoretically be turquoise H2 (produced from natural gas in the absence of oxygen, which is still at the experimental stage) or produced from biomass or waste, the lack of any planned projects in the UK would suggest that this is not what the government has in mind. After all, several large blue hydrogen projects, such as H2H Saltend and Hynet Northwest, are already at a fairly advanced stage of development.
Given that the new strategy aims to reduce the rapidly increasing cost of energy and eliminate any need for Russian fossil fuels, producing hydrogen from high-priced gas would seem self-defeating. The argument that this would allow “British industries to move away from expensive fossil fuels” seems illogical and contradictory.
As Norwegian oil giant Equinor, which is developing H2H Saltend, told Recharge earlier this week: “It is evident that the current gas prices would have an effect on the economy of blue hydrogen projects.”
And given that blue H2 requires hugely expensive, unproven-at-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS), it will almost certainly result in extremely expensive hydrogen — which would still result in CO2 emissions, as only 10-20% of the carbon cannot be captured in the traditional steam methane reformation (SMR) process. Using autothermal reformation instead, which can allegedly allow the capture of up to 99% of CO2 emissions — although this has not been proven at scale — would be even more expensive than SMR. And then, of course, there’s methane emissions to worry about.
Several recent studies have shown that even grey hydrogen (blue H2 without the CCS) would currently be more expensive to produce than green hydrogen in Europe due to high natural-gas prices, and with the continent pledging to rapidly to wean itself off Russian gas amid a global methane shortage, it seems unlikely that costs will fall significantly any time soon.
Similarly, the claim that utilising excess offshore wind power to bring down the cost of hydrogen suggests that the government really doesn’t know what it’s talking about — for two reasons.
First of all, about 60-70% of the cost of green hydrogen is derived from the cost of the renewable energy used for electrolysis (the splitting of water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen using an electric current). So the more expensive the electricity used, the more expensive the H2 will be — and offshore wind is more expensive to produce than onshore wind or solar power.
Secondly, the more hours per day an electrolyser is in use, the cheaper the levelised cost of hydrogen produced. So utilising electrolysers only during periods of excess offshore wind power (ie, those occasional moments when supply is greater than demand) would also result in far more expensive hydrogen than from renewables projects dedicated to green H2 production.
And given that several independent studies suggest that it may be cheaper for Europe to import green hydrogen from parts of the world with better wind and solar resources, it seems highly unlikely that H2 from excess offshore wind power would really “bring down costs”, as the government claims.
Also, the fact that the UK administration is still considering using hydrogen for heat — despite study after study pointing out how expensive and difficult that would be — adds to the evidence that it doesn’t know what it is talking about when it comes to hydrogen.