03 August 2021

'Net Zero' (the UK Government’s commitment to offset all greenhouse gas production by 2050) has been a significant driver in the growing conversations around the role and use of hydrogen in the UK’s energy mix. Private sector confidence in hydrogen is clearly growing, with several high profile announcements of ambitious hydrogen asset roll out plans in recent months, such as the founding by Scottish Power of its green hydrogen division and TfL’s launch of the first hydrogen double decker buses. In parallel, the UK Government has announced a number of incentives to drive investment, including a £240 million Net Zero Hydrogen Fund and grants for the 'Jet Zero Council', exploring the feasibility of hydrogen-powered jet engines.

The future is looking green, with hydrogen at its core. In this article we consider what is meant by 'green hydrogen', the role of green hydrogen in the UK and how stakeholders across a range of sectors can utilise its benefits.

The many colours of hydrogen

Hydrogen, in itself, is a clean fuel (the main bi-product of burning hydrogen is water) but it is reliant on a primary energy source for its production. Manufacturing hydrogen fuel is often energy-intensive and the source of that energy is not necessarily 'green' in the typical sense (in other words, it may still involve the burning of fossil fuels). 'True' green hydrogen will be fuelled by a renewable energy source, with other types of hydrogen being classified into colours, for example:

  • Brown hydrogen is created through coal gasification.
  • Grey hydrogen is created from natural gas throws off carbon waste. Although this becomes classified as Blue hydrogen where the generator uses carbon capture and storage to prevent emissions of the greenhouse gases it produces (typically with c.98 per cent efficacy).

Hydrogen’s place in energy generation in the UK

Until a few years ago hydrogen was not seen as a significant technology for combating climate change. However, the need for energy storage and industrial-grade heat has led to further discussion in respect of the use of hydrogen globally. In a recent report, Aurora Energy Research state that 'hydrogen can play an important role in UK’s ambitious decarbonisation plan and boost its global industrial competitiveness', noting its potential to meet up to half of Great Britain’s final energy demand by 2050. Subsequently there has been much discussion in respect of the use of hydrogen in the UK, with major players in the energy sector promoting its use.

The UK is a global leader in respect of the use of and development of hydrogen in energy development. As at June 2021, there are estimated to be around 90 hydrogen projects in the UK at the moment. However, in order to achieve the UK’s Net Zero target it is important that the difference between the various manufacturing processes is understood. There is significant pressure on the Government to ensure that it is incentivising clean, green hydrogen production, in order to promote the delivery of sustainable assets.

Green hydrogen vs. blue hydrogen

A recent parliamentary question showed that, historically, around 75 per cent of public hydrogen investment in the industrial decarbonisation strategy has gone to blue hydrogen, as opposed to green hydrogen, and it is fair to say that blue hydrogen is practically a lower-hanging fruit in terms of ease of roll out. There are certainly commentators who project that this trend looks set to remain, at least in the short-term, not least to upskill the industry. Speaking at a forum hosted by an All Party Parliamentary Group on Hydrogen (AGGP), Dan Sadler (UK Low Carbon Strategy Director at Equinor) noted that in reality both blue hydrogen and green hydrogen are needed to scale up the hydrogen market in terms of practicality regarding delivery and time.

Many have been critical of the alleged masking of blue hydrogen as a clean option, given that it maintains fossils fuels as part of the manufacturing process. However currently blue hydrogen is a more economic option for most (costing around €1.50 per kilo to produce as compared to €3.5 to 5 for green hydrogen) and many have called on the UK Government to prioritise investment in 'true' green hydrogen.

So is there a future for green hydrogen in the UK?

A scale-up of electrolysis will be required in order to drive down the cost of green hydrogen. This will need to be linked to a cost-effective and reliable roll-out of large scale renewable energy projects and it is hoped that the Government’s commitment to offshore wind will be a key factor in helping to drive this, along with the resurgence in new build projects on a subsidy free basis, particularly in solar and wind. We have considered the role of green hydrogen power in a recent article in our series on offshore wind (Offshore Wind – Exploring the advent of Green Hydrogen Power (burges-salmon.com).

Against this backdrop, a wide range of sectors look set to benefit from investment and see huge growth, not just the energy sector. It is worth mentioning in particular Transport and the Built Environment, which have been the focus of recent investment:

  • Transport: this year we have seen the announcement of new hydrogen transport hubs, such as the one in Tees Valley, and charging networks, to be developed by H2 Green and Element Two, for example. Celia Greaves, founder of the UK Hydrogen Fuel Cell Association, also cites recent research into hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, noting an expectation that it 'will be cheaper than electric charging for HGVs' in future.
  • Built Environment: Hydrogen is the natural renewable alternative to gas when it comes to heating solutions and many market leaders are already producing hydrogen-ready boilers. Whilst retrofitting into existing infrastructure will of course present its challenges, a report by Robert Sansom on behalf of the Institute of Engineering and Technology notes that since 1977 there has been a 'targeted programme of replacing these ‘at-risk’ mains' (in particular replacing iron pipes with polyethylene alternatives), such that the network should be entirely 'hydrogen-ready' by 2031. As part of the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution for 250,000 jobs the Prime Minister has outlined an investment of up to £500 million in Hydrogen, which will include trialling homes using hydrogen for heating and cooking. Plans start with a Hydrogen Neighbourhood in 2023, moving to a Hydrogen Village by 2025, with an aim for a Hydrogen Town – equivalent to tens of thousands of homes – before the end of the decade. Those working in the sector will be looking in anticipation no doubt at the world-first green hydrogen-to-homes heating network on the Fife coast, HF100 Fife, as a trailblazer in this sector.

Getting the right support

It is clear that numerous opportunities exist in the growth of green hydrogen in the UK and beyond. As always, when new technologies emerge, particularly when we see sectors converging (as will be the case for hydrogen projects), getting the right advice is critically important for the purpose of mitigating risk.

Burges Salmon’s multi-disciplinary team of specialist lawyers is already advising on a number of hydrogen projects and speaking to renewable energy developers on plans to implement green hydrogen, both in the UK and overseas. We are members of Renewable UK’s Hydrogen Working Group and sit on the Executive of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association which lobbies and monitors hydrogen developments and assesses new regulation.

If you are interested in speaking to us about hydrogen opportunities, please contact Lloyd James.

Key contact

Lloyd James

Lloyd James Partner

  • Construction and Engineering
  • Energy and Utilities 
  • Infrastructure

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