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Hydrogen hopes head for the coast

If you want a piece of the hydrogen economy in your back yard, it's probably going to help if you're in the right place.

Adjournment debates in the House of Commons are rarely big crowd-pullers and a Thursday debate even less so. That is hardly a surprise when the vote to be taken is "Shall we go home?" rather than anything substantive.

Rother Valley MP Alexander Stafford was, however, keen to show he was on the way last week (26 November) to the adjournment debate he proposed, announcing he would be arriving at the Houses of Parliament in a hydrogen-powered taxi. He planned to use the debate to ask transport undersecretary Rachel Maclean about the government's plans for the fuel.

The source of the fuel for the taxi, operated by Green Tomato, goes a little way to illustrating the complexities around hydrogen as a zero-carbon alternative to natural gas and even petrol. The taxi operator - which among other fuel-cell and battery vehicles has around 50 Toyota Mirai cars that use hydrogen as fuel - runs its vehicles on a mixture of 'blue' and 'green' gas.

The green stuff, as the name implies, involves no carbon in its production, as long as you use renewable energy such as solar or wind. It is made by taking that energy and using it to electrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. The blue version is somewhat dirtier as it employs the same process as that used to make industrial hydrogen today, which is now colour-coded as grey hydrogen. The process of choice is steam reforming of methane. Typically, that is natural gas, although the US Office of Fossil Energy under the Trump administration has been trying to promote coal as a feedstock for hydrogen using more or less the same procedure. Blue hydrogen's environmental credentials come from the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to avoid pumping the waste gas from steam reforming into the atmosphere.

Nevertheless, the UK appears to be pretty keen on the idea of using blue hydrogen. Business minister Kwasi Kwarteng stressed there would be a place for blue hydrogen in country's future when talking to a virtual conference organised by the Chilean government at the beginning of the month. Chile itself is very keen on the idea of green hydrogen, seeing it as a way to turn the country into a major fuel exporter. As electricity is the major factor in the higher cost of producing green hydrogen compared to steam reforming, the South American country aims to capitalise on the high solar irradiation of the Atacama desert plateau and the strong winds towards the south of the 4,000km-long country.

With hydrogen, much like oil, geography matters. That will likely apply almost as much to the blue form as the green. Some of the UK's enthusiasm for not-quite-green hydrogen comes down to the fact that the nation still has access to fairly extensive natural-gas reserves, which also happen to be useful reservoirs for storing waste carbon dioxide. Further into the future, the shallow waters of the North Sea provide ample room for wind farms dedicated to green hydrogen. This may seem to be a backwards step when there are plenty of other sources of carbon dioxide we could be diverting underground, but the argument is that, being cheaper in the short term, it at least gets some hydrogen technologies off the ground.

The UK is lucky. Japan, another proponent of the use of blue hydrogen, has far less in the way of places to store waste carbon dioxide. Instead, it is likely to wind up importing most of it either from Russia, another natural-gas superpower looking for a market when its old one is starting to disappear, or from sun-soaked southern nations such as Australia and Chile. Russia, likely to favour exporting blue hydrogen, will have to come up with the CCS plan.

Geography is the key reason why Stafford might not get at least one of his hydrogen wishes answered. Could there be a hydrogen valley in Stafford's own constituency, situated in Rotherham in the valley of the River Don, he asked the minister? His neighbour on the Conservative benches, Virginia Crosbie, MP for Ynys Môn, may turn out to be luckier.

Europe is planning a pipeline network for hydrogen that will, in principle, convey the gas from solar plants in countries such as Morocco and Libya through Italy into the north and potentially from the east, much like the much delayed Nordstream 2 natural-gas pipeline. For the most part, hydrogen will be strongly associated with shipping. Rotterdam expects to be one of the first locations for a hydrogen-based industrial ecosystem. Norsk e-fuel is setting up in Herøya on an inlet on the southern coast of Norway. The UK's own Tees Valley hydrogen project is based around a coastal location with the ability to act as a port for imports and exports, as well as feeding processed gas to and from local industrial plants.

Although Anglesey, in Wales, is not on the list so far for any hydrogen plans, its location is not a bad one, as Crosbie argued. The deeper waters off the west coast make wind generation trickier to install than with the North Sea coastal waters. There are other options: she cited the way that the Wylfa nuclear power station served an aluminium smelting operation, situated on the coast near Holyhead to make it easier to offload the ore that was shipped in. Metals production, particularly steel, looks as though it will be a major user of green hydrogen in the future because it is one of the few workable alternatives to coal or natural gas for heating.

Inland-bound Rotherham, on the other hand, does not seem on the face of it to be a prime contender for any expansion of hydrogen valleys in the UK. Stafford may have to fall back on his hopes for hydrogen-powered transport and as a supplement to natural gas for home heating.

Although the government benches have one or two keen proponents such as Stafford, how far the UK aims to push hydrogen as a fuel source is still in question. While it featured in the recently published list of green-energy plans, the government has fallen behind in putting together a hydrogen strategy.

There have been hints that the strategy will finally emerge in the first quarter of next year. In September, Lord Callanan told the House of Lords that the Hydrogen Advisory Council "and its working groups will inform the development of a UK hydrogen strategy, which will be published before COP 26 early next year".

The COP26 deadline does provide for some deadline slippage, even though the undersecretary for business, energy and industrial strategy hinted at an early 2021 release. Whatever the timeframe in 2021, the UK is already some way behind many of its neighbours and trading partners. Japan published its strategy in 2017. France followed in mid-2018, while South Korea and Australia both launched theirs the following year. This year has seen a flurry of similar plans, including one produced by Germany that positions hydrogen at the centre not just as a fuel for transport and mixed in with natural gas for heating but also as a feedstock for all manner of chemical that today rely on oil.

There are good reasons as to why hydrogen should not be seen as the future of energy, despite the claims of its more ambitious backers. For transport and heating, its round-trip efficiency is pretty poor compared to simply using stored electricity. Yet it does show promise for hard-to-reach energy consumers, from steelmaking to advanced materials production and from trucks to aircraft. With that in mind, a thinly attended debate in parliament is not what UK citizens want to see given the level of attention it is getting elsewhere.

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