Engineering leaders urge UK to scale up hydrogen production
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The UK must quickly scale up production of low-carbon hydrogen as it will play a “critical role” in a net zero energy system, according to the National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC).
In a report, the 42 professional engineering organisations that constitute the centre said that the UK needs to act swiftly on hydrogen to avoid falling behind international competitors.
It also highlights the risks associated with rapid scale-up of low-carbon hydrogen production such as emissions from fossil fuel extraction and dependencies on other technologies including carbon capture and storage (CCS), renewable electricity and electrolysers.
Other risks identified include leakages, safety and public trust, skills gaps, cost uncertainties, regulations, blue and green hydrogen competition, and embodied carbon in infrastructure.
Hydrogen can be produced in two ways – but only one of these is considered to be truly low-carbon.
Green hydrogen is produced by splitting water by electrolysis while blue hydrogen is produced by splitting natural gas. While green hydrogen can be a zero-emission fuel when electrolysis is powered by renewables, blue hydrogen can only be described as a net-zero carbon fuel when used in conjunction with carbon capture and storage.
A recent study found that blue hydrogen is more carbon-intensive than natural gas, coal, or diesel, as a source of heat.
The report examines the suitability of hydrogen for major applications across the economy, including industry, power, transport and heat and buildings.
It recommends that while the best use of low-carbon hydrogen has yet to be determined, it should be available for the end uses in which hydrogen deployment has the potential to become the best or only low- or zero-carbon option available.
This includes industries such as primary steelmaking, industrial heating and as a chemical feedstock for industrial process. This will maximise hydrogen’s value to decarbonisation of the whole energy system and to closing the emissions gap to put the UK on track to meet the 2050 net zero target.
The report also advocates a region-specific approach to developing local hydrogen economies, with low-carbon hydrogen production and end use initially focused on industrial clusters where current production and use of grey hydrogen (produced using steam methane reforming) is already located.
NEPC vice-chair Professor Nilay Shah said: “Hydrogen is a highly versatile energy vector that could be used in many hard-to-decarbonise sectors where other energy vectors, such as electricity, may not be suitable.
“However, there is a significant gap between our current levels of low-carbon hydrogen production and the level the UK needs to meet its carbon budgets and achieve the target of net zero emissions by 2050. If the government’s commitment to hydrogen is to succeed it will require swift development of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity, which is essentially starting from scratch.”
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