2021: The year that hydrogen went mainstream

North West Hydrogen Alliance Chair Professor Joe Howe looks back at a year when hydrogen took centre stage in the net zero debate.


Chances are that, at some point in 2021, hydrogen and its role in Britain’s green future has been on your newsfeed. From the BBC homepage to COP26, this was the year that hydrogen went mainstream, with more people waking up to pent-up opportunity for hydrogen to help tackle climate change.

The international climate change conference in Glasgow capped of a fantastic year that saw momentum grow in the UK – and particularly the North West of England – around the benefits of hydrogen as a clean power and transport fuel; the opportunity to decarbonise on a large scale; and the skills and jobs bonanza that will be unlocked as a result.

For us, it’s been a year of progress, policy and preparation as we look to 2022 as a year of delivery. Here’s just some of the key moments …


The Track One Carbon Capture Cluster decision

I’ve got to start here, HyNet North West being selected as one of two ‘Track One’ projects for the UK’s Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS) Cluster Sequencing was a pivotal moment this year. It means infrastructure in our region will be progressed as one of two industrial clusters by the mid-2020s.

We were confident the North West had a good case for investment. We have not only one of the lowest cost and deliverable carbon capture solutions but, through HyNet, have made significant progress in developing plans for a full hydrogen system to generate, store and distribute hydrogen to our job-creating companies in our industrial heartland.

The Government’s decision will drive essential investment to deliver carbon capture facilities in the region – a key component of unleashing the hydrogen economy in the region and the UK. It was just the moment we’d be waiting for, setting the scene for work at pace in 2022 to plan for the first stages of HyNet.

COP26 brings the international debate to the UK

No matter whether you think COP26 was a success or not, it’s hard to argue that it didn’t shoot the climate change to the top of the agenda in the UK, with a relenting focus on exploring ways to tackle rising temperatures.

Cue a groundswell of mainstream interest in hydrogen and its pent-up potential to decarbonise our homes, industry and transport. From demonstration hydrogen public transport vehicles in Glasgow, to hydrogen dominating regional roadshow events including the North West, the excitement about hydrogen’s role in the green economy reached a new level.


A national hydrogen policy!

The heightened interest was underpinned by the publication of a national hydrogen strategy – and subsequent consultations – in the summer, putting forward a roadmap to accelerate delivery of the hydrogen economy. As the North West Hydrogen Alliance, we broadly welcomed the approach outlined in our detailed consultation responses … a positive first step. But more can be done to scale hydrogen over the next decade.

We’re supportive of much of the Government’s approach, from the proposed business models and providing CAPEX support through the Net Zero Hydrogen Fund. The key will be in decisions that expand and accelerate the industry over time, including tightening of standards to promote cleaner production; flexibility and increased funding to support the hydrogen value chain; and giving greater consideration to models that support different production methods, incentivising early small scale production and fuel switching.

We’re looking forward to working productively with Government next year to build a set of excellent national policies.


More of the region’s biggest industrial forces join our cause

As the buzz around hydrogen grew, so did our cause in the North West, with more big names joining our industry-led alliance to make the region a first mover on hydrogen. Among them were Fichtner; Powerhouse Energy; Manufacturing Technology Centre; Swagelok Manchester; AMCS, BakerRisk; NVFCL; Rinnai UKl United Living Infrastructure Services; and Peel Ports.

It means the North West Hydrogen Alliance  now represents over 30 of the UK’s most influential organisations driving forward the region’s net zero ambitions.


Commitments to put the North West at the heart of the hydrogen economy

But 2021 was also one of commitment and progress, as well as policy and positivity in the North West. Take for instance Alstom signing a Memorandum of Understanding with Eversholt Rail to deliver the UK’s first ever brand-new hydrogen train fleet. The two companies have agreed to work together, sharing technical and commercial information necessary for Alstom to design, build, commission and support a fleet of ten three-car hydrogen multiple units (HMUs) to be built in Britain.

Elsewhere in the North West, INOVYN unveiled plans to upgrade its existing low-carbon hydrogen supply to fuel transport in the UK. As part of €2 billion investment in green hydrogen they’ll upgrade production in Runcorn, with the capacity to power over 1,000 buses or 2,000 trucks with low-carbon fuel.

And more industrial heavyweights got on board with HyNet, signaling their intention to be hydrogen-powered in the future. Tangible strides were made on that journey, with the likes of Progressive Energy and BOC supporting Pilkington UK to produce the world’s first sheet glass using 100% hydrogen at their St Helen’s plant – a demonstration of the potential of hydrogen to decarbonise energy-intensive manufacturing at pace. It sets the scene for further blending trials in 2022.


The skills challenge and empowering our young generations

Despite progress, there’s massive challenges coming down the line. It’ll be full steam ahead for progress in 2022 in our region, with infrastructure planning and consultation, more trials and further investment. But one of the big issues to tackle will be empowering our young to get involved in the hydrogen journey and addressing the tidal wave of low-carbon skills requirements heading our way.

Potential skills shortages pose a significant risk not only to meeting our climate change targets, but also missing out on the economic prizes on offer in creating world-leading low carbon supply chains in our industrial heartlands – traditionally heavily-reliant on fossil-fueled industries. I, alongside members of the NWHA, are working with government and partners across the North West to identify practical ways to address the skills challenge, bringing together education and industry.

We were proud this year to contribute to getting youngsters excited about a green future, with our donation to the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in Widnes providing a fun-filled net zero exhibit. The interactive game is an accessible way to get younger kids excited, interested and engaged in our net zero future and where our energy must come from if we’re to cut carbon emissions.


2022 will no doubt bring many challenges, but we look forward to it with much enthusiasm. The ‘can do’ attitude and ambition of the public and private sector to make a regional and national hydrogen economy a reality is palpable, and one there for the taking if we deliver on continued collaboration.