How Can Hydrogen Help Us Reach Net Zero?

What is net zero? 

Net Zero means achieving balance between the volume of emissions we release into the atmosphere and the amount we take out. The UK Government is the first major economy to set a world-leading target to achieve Net Zero by 2050; this of course is all in a bid to tackle climate change and ensure the global average temperature remains well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with efforts to limit it to 1.5°C.  The Paris Agreement, adopted on 12 December 2015 at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 21 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Paris is a legally binding treaty requiring all parties to make the necessary changes to meet the goals.  

But how can this be done and why is Hydrogen a key player in the Net Zero race? 

Decarbonising the Heat Network

Greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions cause the global average temperature to rise, and the UK heat network is responsible for approximately one third of the UK GHG emissions.  To achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050, the heat network requires decarbonisation.  The technology mix of the current heat network is predominantly natural gas (90%), a small proportion of electricity (5%) and the remaining (5%) consists of bioenergy and waste, oil, coal and solid fuel.

In November 2020, the Prime Minister released a 10-point plan, followed by the Energy Whitepaper from the department of Business, Energy and Industry Strategy (BEIS).  A key focus in both documents is hydrogen and the role it plays in decarbonising the heat network. 

How is hydrogen produced? 

Hydrogen is a clean burning fuel that holds the potential to reduce GHG emissions and help reach Net Zero.  The majority of hydrogen production occurs through two main methods: steam methane reformation (SMR), which produces approximately 90% of the world’s hydrogen, typically referred to as blue hydrogen when coupled with Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS). Hydrogen produced from SMR leads to emissions of carbon oxide gases and CCUS helps mitigate the environmental impact.

Hydrogen produced from SMR leads to emissions of carbon oxide gases and it should be coupled with Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS) to ensure it is not environmentally detrimental. CCUS features in the energy white paper and forms part of the UK energy roadmap.  It requires a large amount of investment to ensure it is economically viable.  The alternative hydrogen production method is decomposition of water, predominantly through electrolysis. This method is referred to as green hydrogen.  Electrolysing water is generally more sustainable than SMR, but it requires large amounts of electricity. Using renewable electricity is key to ensuring this process is as clean as possible. Renewable electricity generation often creates surplus waste due to volatile and unpredictable weather. This surplus waste energy can be used to create hydrogen when appropriate.

What is the Government’s Hydrogen Strategy? 

In a couple of months, the government is set to publish the hydrogen strategy, which will outline how the UK plans to achieve a low carbon hydrogen network with 5GW of hydrogen production by 2030.  The UK is already making significant steps towards a hydrogen future and a recent National Grid and BEIS event highlighted this.  Speakers from National Grid, the four distribution networks; Cadent, Northern Gas Networks, Wales & West and SGN, all shared their work and demonstrated the steps they are taking. Transmission, distribution, storage and generation took centre stage, but many other organisations highlighted the consumer implications and challenges the UK faces in the transition to a hydrogen economy.

To learn more about hydrogen, the Institute of Gas Engineers & Managers (IGEM) have created a repository for the innovation of hydrogen and the road to net-zero emissions. IGEM is collaborating with academics, industry bodies and policy makers to bring relevant information and insight to everyone. 

We would love to hear your thoughts on the potential of a future hydrogen economy and are always open for a discussion!