10 things hydrogen can, could and can’t do for us

With the Greater Brighton area, including Lewes, looking to focus on hydrogen as a major source of clean energy, TTL’s Kirsten Firth, part of the Sustainability Projects team at Brighton & Hove City Council, considers what hydrogen’s potential really is.

Hydrogen is regularly hyped as the answer to our clean energy needs, the ‘missing link’ that will help to cut greenhouse gases in sectors like heavy vehicles, heating and the steel industry.

It’s considered so versatile that a new body, Hydrogen Sussex, has been created to facilitate the growth of a hydrogen economy across our region. Hydrogen Sussex says its aims are: “to promote hydrogen technology, support local supply chains, and to make Sussex a leader in a clean hydrogen economy.”

All exciting stuff? Possibly. But what exactly could hydrogen do for us here in Sussex now, what could it do (with proper investment) in the future, and what can’t it do? Here’s a quick look.

What hydrogen can do now

  1. Heavy transport – Hydrogen has a key role in decarbonising heavy vehicles such as buses, lorries and refuse trucks. The only emission from a hydrogen-fuelled engine is water vapour, so it helps to cut air pollution too. A hydrogen-fuelled vehicle can travel 300 miles with a heavy load, much further than an electric vehicle. Brighton & Hove Buses has plans to introduce hydrogen powered buses by 2030, and other uses are being explored, such as ambulances and refuse trucks – a couple of models are already available. A new infrastructure of refuelling stations would be needed initially at depots. Hydrogen cars are available too, but with little advantage and at much higher cost than electric cars.
  2. Shore power – Hydrogen fuel cells can act as mobile generators for construction, festivals and the like. Shoreham Port is planning to generate hydrogen to provide shore power to ships while in dock.
  3. Decarbonising depots – Hydrogen could help to cut carbon emissions in settings like depots with a vehicle fleet travelling short distances and returning to refuel at base. The nearest hydrogen refuelling station to Lewes is at Gatwick airport where there are plans for onsite vehicles to be hydrogen fuelled.
  4. High-temperature industrial uses – Some industrial processes use extremely high temperatures for production, e.g. brick, cement, and steel-making. Currently these are powered by gas or coke as it is difficult to get such high temperatures with electricity. Hydrogen could be a good substitute and the government has announced substantial investment in industrial decarbonisation projects mainly in the former industrial heartlands of the North, Midlands and Wales.

What hydrogen could do in the future

  1. Heating buildings – Hydrogen could partly replace gas in boilers and cookers, with fuel supplied through a repurposed network of gas pipes. It’s thought that up to 20% hydrogen mixed with natural gas would be safe in existing networks without having to make changes that would affect consumers. Already, biogas (methane) is mixed into our gas supply in small quantities. But in South East England, the gas network would need to be reinforced with hydrogen-ready plastic pipes, a process that would take the rest of the decade. At present it would be far too expensive to use hydrogen for general heating because of the low cost of natural gas.
  2. Energy storage – Electrolysers (see diagram) could produce hydrogen using renewable energy that exceeds demand – for example, during particularly windy periods, when wind turbines would otherwise have to be ‘curtailed’ (turned off temporarily). The power can be stored as hydrogen and then released when needed – either short or long term. Curtailment tends not to be an issue in South East England as there is always demand for power somewhere in the system. However, on remote islands like Orkney, this is already happening, due to the limited capacity of electricity cables connecting the islands to the mainland.

Picture credit: fchea.org

Picture credit: fchea.org

  1. Planes, ships, and trains – Much research is under way into using hydrogen or hydrogen-based ammonia to power planes and shipping. While technically possible, there are challenges with on-board storage and modifying existing infrastructure. The UK government recently announced a £20m competition to trial innovative zero emission vessels and port infrastructure.

What hydrogen can’t do

  1. Solve all our energy needs – To replace all heating, transport and industrial fuels with hydrogen would require staggering quantities of the fuel, which is only as clean as the methods used to produce it. We will continue to need a mixed energy system with direct electrical heating, electric cars, improved energy efficiency, and continuing innovation in wind, solar and wave power.
  2. Provide cheap, clean energy – Nearly all hydrogen produced in the world now is ‘grey’ (or ‘blue’) hydrogen. This means it’s produced via the ‘steam reformation’ method using high temperatures creating its own carbon emissions. This is relatively cheap as it is associated with other industrial processes. As referred to in Point 6 above, ‘green’ hydrogen is produced using renewable energy from solar or wind farms to power electrolysers that split water into hydrogen and oxygen. However this process requires a large supply of renewable energy. To produce it on a large scale would vastly increase the demand for renewable electricity. For this reason, both the UK and EU give a role to ‘grey / blue’ hydrogen in the foreseeable future.

Want to learn more?
Carbon Brief has published an in-depth but really accessible Q&A on hydrogen. Read it here

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