Firstly, an admission. I love hydrogen and am convinced it is a big part of the future, but let’s be honest, low to zero carbon hydrogen is expensive. If it comes from green electricity there will be efficiency losses and capital equipment to pay for. If it comes from natural gas there will be efficiency losses and CO2 to deal with (forever). On top of that, hydrogen is a new energy medium. We have no infrastructure to store, transport or use it. So why bother?
It is quite possible to generate all the electricity we need from zero carbon sources. We have enough Continental Shelf space in our coastal waters for offshore wind to generate about twenty times the total energy we use, or like France, we could go nuclear. The issue we have with an ‘all electric’ future is how do we get the energy to where we want it and when we want it? Just to transmit all the energy we need for mobility (oil) and heat (gas) as electricity would take an enormous investment to triple the electricity infrastructure and the planning issues alone would take decades. A single high pressure gas pipeline will transmit the same energy as eight high voltage pylons. Imagine the impact on our countryside and disruption to our city centres.
And then there is storage. At our Stublach site in Cheshire we have been busy for the last 12 years building salt caverns for natural gas storage. We now store over 4TWh of energy in our natural gas salt caverns. To put that into perspective, a Tesla model 3 stores 50 kWh, that’s 0.000,000,05 TWh. To store 4TWh (only 30% of the currently available UK storage capacity) would need 80 million Tesla model 3 cars. So even if we all owned a Tesla and never drove it, we wouldn’t have enough storage capacity to replicate a third of the energy storage we currently have to see us through the winter heating season. That’s why I believe that the future lies in us having much more low carbon electricity, but that we will convert much of the electricity generated (in the summer) to hydrogen to be used in the winter. We already know we can store hydrogen in salt caverns. It is already done in Teeside and elsewhere. But we are going to need a lot of caverns.
The challenge now is how do we get there. For the past 30 years we have followed an energy policy that largely relies on the market to deliver solutions. This (alongside sensible regulatory intervention) has worked well in keeping prices down and providing a varied fuel mix. But the market cannot provide the scale of investment at the level of uncertainty and long term horizons that hydrogen requires. If we believe this is the solution, we will need a level of central planning that has not existed in our energy market since the 1980’s. It’s a huge political decision, but if we are serious about net zero, one I believe that has to be taken and very soon.