How hydrogen can fuel Britain’s future

This appeared as a contribution to the Young Fabians Anticipations Magazine

As talk of Green New Deals gather pace and attention on climate change is greater than ever, talk of solutions are too often presented in the abstract. If the Green New Deal presented to the US Congress is anything to go by, progressive plans at their most ambitious are (for now) figurative and lacking concrete framing and substance.

What these various Green New Deals get correct is that preventing climate change is not only a challenge but an environmental and economic opportunity. Inherent in that economic aspect is the question of how our economy is run and what it is – to use a pun – fuelled by.

Hydrogen is the fuel of the future. It’s safer and cleaner than fossil fuels and has more potential for large-scale environmental and economic change than battery and hybrid power. To be the answer to the questions posed by climate change, hydrogen must overcome three obstacles. All of these can be overcome with sound policy and a willingness to adapt the British economy to one powered by hydrogen.

First, safety. Like any fuel hydrogen has risks, most of which surround questions of storage. Hydrogen is flammable when mixed with even a small amount of air and committing to it as a fuel of the future will require a consistent approach to ensure safety. This is also the easiest challenge to overcome – because hydrogen is lighter than air. Policymakers can ensure that vehicles are built with emergency valves in the event of a fire and that carbon fibre is used in the construction of storage tanks to prevent explosions in car crashes or damage to production plants.

Secondly – infrastructure – the single biggest challenge and the one where
alternative energy sources such as nuclear and solar have inherent advantages. Electric cars and renewable energy can adapt to existing power grids to store and distribute electricity. There are few large-scale hydrogen production facilities in the world but one of them, Shell’s Rhineland refinery, offers a glimpse of the potential for mass-produced hydrogen powering homes and transport. In sharp contrast to the estimated £50billion estimated to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, the cost of refitting the Rhineland refinery for hydrogen production will be about €20million (£17.8million) and will employ 1,600 staff. For £500million – the equivalent of the UK’s budget allocation for road maintenance – 28
hydrogen production plants could be built by refitting redundant oil and coal refineries, employing 45,000 people producing the fuel of the future.

Finally, and most importantly to the everyday consumer, is the question of cost. If hydrogen has any hope of being the fuel of the future, it’s costs must be brought down in line with fossil fuels and batteries for it to be a viable alternative.

Fortunately, a great deal of research conducted over the past few decades offers hope. Increasingly hydrogen production uses methods that can be done on a small scale, using renewable energy to produce hydrogen. Picture a future where every petrol station has its own hydrogen production plant, and every town and city its own hydrogen power station. This will require investment, but done on a large enough scale, the benefits are incalculable and the risks minimal.

The reason why hydrogen is infrequently talked about as a realistic solution to many climate problems is because governments must build economies around it, rather than adapt economic structures as would be done with solar and wind. But as the threat of climate change gathers pace, policymakers must be prepared to consider radical solutions equal to the size of the challenges we will face. A hydrogen-fuelled economy can and should be an integral part of Britain’s Green New Deal.

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