17 Aug 2021

Can hydrogen be turned into the fuel that helps save the planet?

Chief Correspondent

Hydrogen is our most abundant element and emits just water when it’s burned, so it could well play a role in helping the UK reach the Paris Climate Agreement’s target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The government has announced its hydrogen strategy, which promised more than £100 million in funding, but there are questions around the credibility of those tasked with producing hydrogen. 

Alex Thomson reports:

The long-awaited hydrogen strategy was published today. Essentially the government is going to do two things: Fund green electricity generated hydrogen, but also, far more controversially, put money into oil and gas companies to continue funding “blue hydrogen”.

Channel 4 News was invited to Hy Grove on Tyneside where blue hydrogen is being used to supply new boilers.

Tim Harwood, of Northern Gas Networks which is supplying homes there, said: “Blue hydrogen is a transitional fuel to green hydrogen.

“And the difference between them is, [for] blue hydrogen you take methane and you split off the hydrogen and capture the carbon underground. It’s obviously got losses, there are emissions in the production process, but ultimately, we need to go to green hydrogen, which is produced by electrolysis from electricity.”

The government’s independent energy advisors, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), say investing in blue hydrogen is problematic for a country legally obliged to cut carbon.

Chris Stark, chief executive of the CCC, said: “The big risk with blue hydrogen production using fossil fuels and carbon capture is that we lock in the use of fossil fuels permanently. So that is not where we want to be.”

Asked why governments don’t scale up green hydrogen produced by wind turbine, Chris Stark said: “You need to scale up the size of the offshore wind sector by a huge factor, maybe 20 or 30 times from what we have at the moment. Now, that is an enormous undertaking.”

Oil and gas giants have mounted a massive government lobbying operation, staking all on the government allowing them a future for blue polluting hydrogen from gas. That could lock us into decades of pollution as we try to go carbon-free.

But one major energy player won’t touch blue hydrogen.

Barry Caruthers, Hydrogen Director at Scottish Power, said: “We believe that zero means zero. We are in the middle of a climate emergency. We don’t want to go down the route of fossil fuel-based hydrogen because we’ve already made great strides forward in renewable energy.”

Many say if polluting blue hydrogen has a future, it’s solely in heavy industries like steel or cement where it is hard to decarbonise.

Lord Callanan, minister for Business and Energy, said: “People assume that it would be used for overheating, but actually there’s probably more uses for it in their hard to decarbonised sectors, such as you mentioned, possibly trains, possibly heavy goods, vehicles, possibly steel production, other industrial processes, etc.

“There are alternatives for all domestic heating, such as heat pumps, where some of these sectors don’t have alternatives at the moment. But the jury’s still out.”

Ben Houchen, Mayor of Tees Valley, said: “If you look at the former steelworks site, we’ve got the development corporation, the Tees work site, and that is going to be the UK centre for net-zero, whether that’s carbon capture, hydrogen, offshore wind, battery technology. And we’re going to create more than 20,000 jobs on that side over the next 15 years.”