The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has urged the UK Government to act now on using hydrogen (H2) as a alternative source of energy.

Hydrogen plant

The CCC, which advises the government on energy and environmental policies, says in a report there needs to be “improved support to develop the UK’s industrial capability” for hydrogen to help decarbonise the UK energy system.

The report - Hydrogen in a low-carbon economy - says H2 in a low-carbon economy can contribute to decarbonisation if combined with greater energy efficiency, cheap low-carbon power generation, electrified transport and new ‘hybrid’ heat pump systems, which have been successfully trialled in the UK.

It recommends that significant volumes of low-carbon H2 should be produced in a carbon capture and storage (CCS) ‘cluster’ by 2030 to help the industry grow.

And the CCC says the UK Government must support everyday uses of hydrogen in order to establish the switching from natural gas to hydrogen.

“Hydrogen has the potential to contribute to near-zero carbon energy emissions if used strategically,” said John Gummer, Lord Deben, Chairman of the CCC who was the UK’s longest-serving Secretary of State for the Environment (1993 to 1997).

”The Government must now decide whether it wishes to develop a UK hydrogen option, taking decisions now that will see the first deployment in the 2020s. This must be in parallel with efforts to improve energy efficiency, build further low-cost renewables and get carbon capture and storage underway. The time for the Government to move from theory to practice has arrived.

“Most exciting of all is the prospect of producing low-carbon heat; using smart hybrid heat pumps in combination with natural gas in the short-term, with the potential for hydrogen in the long-term.

“The future now rests on Government making a quick decision and fully committing to low-carbon heat within the next three years. This is important to achieving the existing 2050 emissions target, but even more important as we consider whether it is possible for the UK to reach ‘net-zero’ emissions in the future.”

The 128-page report finds H2 could replace natural gas in parts of the energy system, where electrification is not feasible or is prohibitively expensive, such as providing heat on colder winter days, industrial heat processes and back-up power generation.

“If hydrogen is to play a substantial long-term role, progress towards deployment of low-carbon hydrogen at scale must start now,” the report says.

“Deployment of hydrogen should start in a ‘low-regrets’ way over the next decade, recognising that even an imperfect roll-out is likely to be better in the long term than a ‘wait-and-see’ approach that fails to develop the option properly.

“The largest potential for hydrogen to contribute to decarbonisation is as a low-carbon fuel for heat in buildings and/or industrial processes.

“These uses will also determine hydrogen infrastructure requirements, for example relating to the future of gas distribution networks.

“Hydrogen’s future role therefore rests on strategic certainty about how the decarbonisation of heat will be delivered in the UK. It also relies on the implementation of CCS, given its importance for low-carbon hydrogen production at scale. A commitment should be made now to develop a fully-fledged UK strategy for decarbonised heat within the next three years, including clear signals on the future use of the gas grid in the UK.”

The report also stresses there is low awareness amongst the UK general public of reasons to move away from natural gas heating to low-carbon alternatives and argues that a strategy should be developed for low-carbon heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to adopt zero-emission solutions by 2050.

The CCC expects that by 2050, H2 could provide 25 percent of heat for buildings with the remainder covered by electric pumps.

Kevin Stickney, Managing Director at Erda Energy, the clean energy solutions company specialising in geo-exchange technology, welcomed the report.

“The CCC has done a good job on the report in many respects: They’ve taken a balanced view on the roles of electrification and hydrogen and reaffirmed the urgency of decarbonising heat,” Stickney said.

“But that urgency doesn’t go far enough. At best, hydrogen is a technology for the future - and there are still big questions about its feasibility at scale, especially south of the Midlands where natural CCS sites are sparse.

“By contrast, we have the technology to electrify heat now. Air and ground-source heat technologies such as geo-exchange are mature and proven at scale. The CCC is confident they’ll have a big role to play even in a high-hydrogen scenario - so what are we waiting for? Climate change isn’t waiting. The industry needs support now.”