By the end of this decade, there’s a very real chance your home, business and your car could all be powered by hydrogen.

Once upon a time, hydrogen wasn’t taken entirely seriously as a power source of the future. In the 1970s it was championed as a clean, green answer to the decade’s oil crisis, but proved too expensive to make a reality. As recently as 2019 Elon Musk called the tech behind hydrogen “mind-bogglingly stupid”, although you might conclude he would say that given his investment in electric vehicles (EVs).

And yet, in 2022, a major project in Fife, Scotland will see hydrogen used to provide zero carbon energy for heating and cooking in 300 homes. Led by SGN, the project is just one of numerous large scale studies by Britain’s gas networks designed to ultimately deliver the world’s first zero carbon gas grid.

While the transformation will begin in people’s homes with the switching of old gas boilers for hydrogen-ready models, the government’s Hydrogen Strategy is clear that hydrogen won’t be merely a domestic power source.

Why hydrogen?

The UK has invested heavily in wind energy. In 2020 wind accounted for 24% of total electricity generation. Solar is rather less impactful on a national scale, but far more effective at the individual business level. Both have helped to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, but an estimated 29 million natural gas-powered domestic boilers (and many more commercial boilers) currently produce more carbon than all the cars on UK roads. If we’re to meet our net zero ambitions, the way we heat our homes and businesses needs to change.

Heat pumps may be an option for some but can be costly. Hydrogen, on the other hand, seems to be a far more likely candidate to deliver low carbon energy in a format suitable for widescale, cost-effective use.

There’s just one problem. The technology to make hydrogen truly viable doesn’t quite exist…yet.

A race against time

According to the government’s Hydrogen Strategy, all new natural gas boilers will need to be easily convertible to hydrogen by 2026. By 2030, 3 million homes will be heated by hydrogen. By 2035, 35% of the UK will be hydrogen powered. And by 2035 (or 2040 – opinions differ) the UK will ban gas boilers. It’s the tightest of timelines, especially given the fact that 100% hydrogen boilers are not currently available – although progress towards them is swift and promising.

A global solution

Globally, the potential for hydrogen power may be even greater. With wind or solar power driving the electrolysis required for clean, green hydrogen production, countries with a deficit of wind or sunshine could import hydrogen from countries like the UK (never short of wind) or Australia (never short of sunshine). As this article notes, it’s potentially a far more cost-effective way of converting to carbon-free energy than relying on their own limited renewable sources.

Car wars

In 2020, Toyota launched an electric vehicle. You may be surprised to know that it was the company’s first. Its Prius was the first name in hybrid vehicles for years. More recently, however, the company has been focusing on hydrogen.

Since EVs became commonplace, the industry and media has been consumed by making the debate about the relative benefits of electric or hydrogen a little like the VHS/Betamax debate of the 1980s (here’s just one of a million articles doing exactly that). The assumption has always been that, sooner or later, the supporters of hydrogen would throw in the towel and get behind electric in much the same way as Betamax owners reluctantly switched formats.

Toyota suggests something else is happening. As Forbes notes, the company’s approach is that:

“Manufacturers should be striving to become more multi-faceted ‘mobility suppliers’ and aiming for a more balanced mix of powertrain technologies across their lineups, a mix that includes hybrids, plug-in hybrids, EVs, fuel cell cars like the Mirai and hydrogen powered engines like the Corolla.”

The hydrogen fuel cell has numerous advantages over its electric counterpart. Hydrogen fuel cell manufacture doesn’t involve the same toxic materials linked to the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries. Hydrogen production is less energy intensive than lithium ion battery production (at least, it is when the hydrogen is from renewables). And recycling spent hydrogen fuel cells is also less complex. Generally speaking, a hydrogen powered car is the cleanest car. Which is why every car manufacturer is now investing in hydrogen even if, to date, Toyota has been the only one to make it a priority.

A hydrogen future

So where does that leave Lancashire SMEs? Frustratingly, hydrogen remains just out of reach. You can’t place it in your cars and vans because, in the main, the cars and vans don’t yet exist. Nor does the refuelling infrastructure. And you can’t switch your commercial boiler to a hydrogen model because there aren’t yet any to choose from.

Things are changing but, for now at least, EVs offer proven carbon reduction opportunities, while solar power frequently represents the most cost efficient low carbon form of energy. The difference is that, where hydrogen was once a long term bet, now it’s a much more realistic proposition for any business looking 5 – and certainly 10 – years into the future.

Exploring your carbon reduction opportunities begins with a free carbon audit. To arrange yours, please contact us now.

MaCaW (Making Carbon Work) is a University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) project, an industry and academic collaboration funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and supported by Boost, Lancashire’s business growth hub.

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