Hydrogen: the quiet revolution

Hydrogen Sector 23.11.21
Written by: HYCAP

There was something almost understated about Sky News Correspondent Adam Boulton’s description of test-driving a hydrogen-powered JCB last week.

“I’m no expert driver but it all worked smoothly,” he reported from Derbyshire.

This is precisely the point: for those using them, hydrogen-powered JCBs are no different to those running on diesel. They are a little quieter, and zero carbon, but otherwise, it is business as usual.  And that’s the genius of their solution.

The same is true of Worcester Bosch’s hydrogen boiler. Because it also works on natural gas, it can sit in your home working as normal until the time comes to switch it over to 100% hydrogen, at which point, following a few small adjustments from an engineer, it’s ready to go.

Last week, the RAF set a Guinness World Record for the first successful flight using only synthetic fuel made from hydrogen. No modifications needed to be made to the engine or the aircraft, and the pilot noticed no difference in power or general performance in the operation of the plane.

Operating a JCB machine that runs on hydrogen is no different to one that runs on diesel, except there’s zero-carbon.

In October, Rolls-Royce announced conversion kits that would make its mtu Series 500 and Series 4000 gas engines (power units for industrial companies and utilities) able to run on 100% hydrogen.

The list goes on: buses and trains that run on hydrogen provide an almost identical experience for the people operating and riding on them to their hydrocarbon-powered predecessors; cooking on a stove with a hydrogen flame is very similar to natural gas.

The point is, with the embrace of hydrogen, the energy transition does not need to mean an end to life as we know it. In fact, many of the things we love to do today, we can continue to do much as we have always done.

Hydrogen is not the answer to everything when it comes to the energy transition, but neither is electrification.

Air-source heat pumps are too bulky to install in most UK homes and don’t produce hot enough water so would involve ripping out and replacing the radiators in the majority of cases. It may never be possible to electrify air travel and shipping, unless we want to travel in very small numbers to make space for enormous, heavy batteries.

But not everyone is happy with the quiet revolution that hydrogen offers. Revolutions are supposed to be dramatic. Maybe that is why the UK has always been wary of them: all that lopping off of heads over the Channel at the end of the 18th Century has given us pause.

When it comes to the energy transition, some are in favour of a dramatic revolution, but this time they are calling not for the heads of royalty, but those of Big Oil, automotive companies and anyone who was involved in the hydrocarbons industry.

While that might be cathartic for some, it is not necessary and, in fact, would be counterproductive if the real goal is achieving net zero as quickly and as cost effectively as possible and not dishing out punishment to those they blame for climate change.

By putting hydrogen at the heart of the UK’s energy transition, we don’t need to rip the guts out of the UK’s energy infrastructure. Instead, we can build on it.

Take Britain’s 171,000-mile natural gas pipeline network. The UK has been upgrading the iron pipes with yellow polythene for the past 20 years and it will be 90% hydrogen-ready by 2030. A similar project is underway in mainland Europe.

Gas networks in mainland Europe are already looking to switch to hydrogen, as the clean fuel can theoretically be deployed via the existing infrastructure.

Gas network company SGN revealed last week a roadmap for the hydrogen transition that could see 90% of Scottish homes benefiting from piping hydrogen through the existing gas network. According to plans, Aberdeen could become the world’s first city powered by 100% hydrogen as soon as 2030 with the rest of the nation’s gas network converted by 2045.

Many of the natural gas boilers and appliances we use today are already able to accept a blend of 20% hydrogen should the government go ahead and approve the measure as expected in the next couple of years.

The arrival of the hydrogen economy is revolutionary. It will help slash greenhouse gas emissions, make our air cleaner, generate thousands of jobs, and contribute to national energy security.

However, for most people, it won’t create Instagrammable moments. It will be a quiet revolution. And that is one of the reasons it will be so effective. And that is why HYCAP was created: because we believe Hydrogen is the most practical and cost-effective solution for the UK to achieve its net zero goals.

For more about HYCAP click here.