In a lab outside the spa town of Buxton in the Peak District, scientists are experimenting with scrap sections of steel, plastic and copper piping. Researchers from the Health and Safety Executive are testing to see how they react when hydrogen is pumped through them rather than natural gas. Hydrogen, touted for years as the holy grail of energy, is going mainstream as governments and companies try to curb carbon emissions. Last week, it was given extra impetus with the release of a white paper on energy, which mentioned hydrogen 133 times and unveiled an ambition to “decarbonise gas supplies” with five gigawatts (GW) of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030. Ministers want a “hydrogen neighbourhood” by 2023, a large village powered by hydrogen by 2025 and a town by 2030. “We will turn water into energy with up to £500m of investment in hydrogen,” said Boris Johnson last month. A hydrogen gold rush is under way. Alongside huge lobbying, vast sums are pouring into research projects, sending the price of companies involved soaring. Shares in ITM Power, which makes electrolysers, are more than six times higher than a year ago. Shares in fuel-cell companies AFC Energy and Ceres Power are up almost four times and five times respectively. Hydrogen’s appeal is not new: it is the most abundant element in the universe. When burned it emits no carbon — its only by-product is water — and it generates a similar temperature to natural gas. It can be isolated by passing an electrical current through water. However, hydrogen has made little headway as a replacement fuel for heating or transport, remaining a niche for refining, chemicals and ammonia fertiliser. Much of the reason lies in two issues: practicality and cost. The chief executive of the independent Climate Change Committee, Chris Stark, told The Times recently: “You’d need something like 300GW of offshore wind if you wanted to produce the amount of hydrogen we’d need to straightforwardly replace natural gas, and that doesn’t seem like a practical solution.” The UK has 10GW of offshore wind capacity and plans to increase that to 40GW by 2030. “On the surface, hydrogen looks like the answer to every energy question,” said Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, on Twitter. “Sadly, it displays an impressive list of disadvantages. Even so, it holds a vice-like grip over the imaginations of techno-optimists.” On a former RAF base in Cumbria, three new terrace homes have been fitted with boilers made by Worcester Bosch that are designed to run exclusively on hydrogen. Worcester began developing a hydrogen-powered boiler in 2015. “They have been driven to destruction in our laboratories,” said director Martyn Bridges. When mass-produced they will be “roughly” the same price as a gas boiler, he said. “We know we’ve got to get rid of gas in its present form,” added Bridges, who said it was “hard to see” the downsides. Worcester’s boilers are hydrogen-ready: they will run on natural gas until converted with parts costing about £75. Proponents of the fuel argue that it can be injected into the grid without requiring a huge replacement of gas infrastructure or rebuilding the electricity network, which would be required if homes were to be powered solely by electricity. The hydrogen future is coming, and it will be expensive.
Times 20th Dec 2020 read more »