Time is running out for the UK to become a hydrogen world-leader

By Ed Sawyer and Kat Logut

The global energy crisis, kickstarted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has exposed the fragility of the UK’s energy system. Families are now anxiously opening their winter energy bills, unsure if they can afford to put food on the table. With the price of fossil fuels to remain volatile until at least 2030, there is a new impetus to achieve energy independence in the UK and bring down soaring energy bills.

Diversifying the energy supply and improving its flexibility will stabilise prices and pre-empt variations in supply. Hydrogen has a vital part to play, and with clear direction, the UK can gain a competitive advantage. Green hydrogen, in particular, is made by passing water through an electrolysis cell powered with electricity generated by renewables, meaning no carbon emissions are emitted.

The demand for hydrogen is here. You don’t have to look far for the data to support this. The average number of news stories relating to hydrogen in September last year was 170. This more than doubled in September 2022, with 532 articles on hydrogen being published. October reflects this, with 230 stories in 2021, compared to 408 in 2022. Interest in hydrogen is only rising, and our policymakers should be listening.

The spike in hydrogen articles arose in May 2022, as news of a bleak winter of soaring energy costs dominated the news. These stories were printed alongside business announcements stating headway was being made in hydrogen technology, such as Renault announcing its radical plan to develop hydrogen cars.

With China monopolising the electric vehicle market, hydrogen presents an opportunity for the UK to rediscover its industrial rigour. It can be used to decarbonise critical industries, such as steel and chemicals, or to power cars, trains and shipping, and we already have the technology to produce it here.

With the right political leadership, the UK can become the world leader in hydrogen. A focus on hydrogen would demonstrate climate leadership, create thousands of green jobs, level up left-behind regions, and kickstart a green industrial revolution.

Clearly, the UK is more eager to read about energy alternatives, and we have an opportunity to grab hold of this excitement. However, becoming a hydrogen superpower won’t be easy, and a lack of direction risks Britain trailing foreign competitors.

The EU has launched a hydrogen offensive, channelling £10bn into cross-border hydrogen projects. This includes decarbonising industrial sectors and building hydrogen plants in Romania, and a £220mn hydrogen plant in Spain. Similarly, China is creating markets and funding development – building the world’s largest green hydrogen factory by 2030. Additionally, India is aiming for an annual production capacity of 25 million tons by 2047. Finally, Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act includes a tax credit for the production of green hydrogen, which is expected to boost production.

The UK looks meagre in comparison. The commitment to doubling hydrogen capacity announced this year, coupled with the Net Zero Hydrogen Fund with just £220mn, suggests an appetite but no ambition.

As the international race heats up, the government must set a clear framework to support competition, cluster hydrogen in industrial hubs, and prioritise green hydrogen.

The climate crisis is forcing us to open our eyes to new technology, accelerated by the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine, bringing energy issues close to home. We can’t afford to rely on volatile energy systems; Not for the sake of the planet and or those struggling to keep their homes warm this winter.

Now is the time for Britain to rediscover its industrial heritage. Areas such as the Thames Estuary and Tees Valley are screaming out for hydrogen investment so that we produce green energy on our doorstep.

As the data from UK articles show, it’s not just businesses asking for hydrogen anymore, it is the people as well. This opportunity of interest won’t last for long. Other countries have already seen the possibilities that hydrogen can bring. The clock is ticking.