Hydrogen not a net zero panacea

A powerful parliamentary committee has warned the UK not to put all its net zero hopes on a move to hydrogen powered boilers.

A new report by the Commons Science and Technology Committee has said hydrogen is not a panacea for reaching the Net Zero emissions reductions by 2050 but can grow to become “a big niche” fuel in particular sectors and applications.

The committee argued that hydrogen will likely have a “specific but limited” role in decarbonising sectors, for example where electrification is not possible, and as a means of storing energy. MPs have urged the government to give the industry more clarity over how and when it will make decisions about the role of hydrogen in the UK economy.

The Committee concludes that hydrogen is not likely to be practically and economically viable for mass use in the short and medium term for heating homes or fuelling passenger cars due to the significant cost, technological and infrastructure challenges associated, as well as the “unassailable” market lead held by alternatives such as electric cars.

Committee chair Greg Clark MP said: “Hydrogen can play an important role in decarbonising the UK’s economy, but it is not a panacea.

“There are significant infrastructure challenges associated with converting our energy networks to use hydrogen and uncertainty about when low-carbon hydrogen can be produced at scale at an economical cost.

“But there are important applications for hydrogen in particular industries so it can be, in the words of one witness to our inquiry, “a big niche”.

“We welcome the Government’s high-level strategy and support of hydrogen trials, but future decisions on the role of hydrogen must increasingly be practical, taking into account what is technically and economically achievable. We call on the Government to set out a series of decision points, which would give industry the clarity that it needs.”

The report added currently, hydrogen is overwhelmingly produced from fossil-fuel intensive processes. Efficient production of low carbon ‘green’ hydrogen relies on abundant cheap renewable electricity and so-called ‘blue’ hydrogen requires Carbon Capture and Storage, which is not deployed at the large scale required to make a material contribution to emissions reductions. Given this, the Committee said it is “unwise” to assume hydrogen can make a large contribution to reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions in the short and medium term.

The committee said it was “unconvinced” that hydrogen will be able to play a widespread role in heating homes by 2026, when the Government has said it could start mandating hydrogen-ready boilers in domestic homes, though it could be feasible to blend some hydrogen with natural gas. It also argues that policy for hydrogen metering in homes has been “overlooked”, with the energy regulator Ofgem unable to say whether current smart meters would be suitable for hydrogen or the cost implications for the consumer if they are not suitable.

The Committee outlined the areas where the use of hydrogen has strong potential, including in the decarbonisation of UK industrial clusters, where hydrogen is already produced; in parts of transport such as areas of the rail network which are hard to electrify, bus networks which have a local pattern of operations susceptible to refuelling at depots, and some parts of shipping and aviation.

“The committee asks the Government to, in the next two months, outline a series of decision points between now and 2050 that will set out in practical terms the role of hydrogen in the UK’s future energy system,” the report stated. “This should include specifying what scientific and technological progress needs to be made at each stage, such as requirements for the deployment of Carbon Capture and Storage to make blue hydrogen economic and the level of renewable generation that would lead to surplus power which could be used to produce green hydrogen.”