Why The World Needs Clean Hydrogen

Hydrogen Sector 07.10.21
Written by: HYCAP

The consequences of human activity on the climate could not be clearer. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it is now “unequivocal” we have warmed the planet, causing “widespread and rapid” changes to the oceans, ice cover and land surface.

Many of the changes, particularly to oceans and sea levels are “irreversible” and abrupt changes as a result of tipping points, such as Antarctic ice sheet melt and forest dieback “cannot be ruled out.”

However, amid the gloom, a titanic effort is underway to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius as set out in the Paris climate accords and avert the worst cases scenarios described by the IPCC.

To do so, the challenges are numerous: increase the use of renewable power; stop using hydrocarbons in transport (road, rail, shipping and aviation); end the use of natural gas in heating and cooking; and decarbonise industry.

Key to achieving all those goals is clean hydrogen.


Energy supply made up almost 21 percent of UK greenhouse emissions in 2019, second only to transport, and the shift away from coal and natural gas to wind and solar is one of the most visible and, initially at least, easiest to achieve.

Renewable energy is the cheapest way to produce electricity in most parts of the world (see these reports from Lazard, EIA and Wood Mackenzie for the details) but it has a widely reported intermittency problem.

For short-term fluctuations in supply, batteries have an important role to play, but they start to lose their charge as soon as the power is removed and are generally only considered an economic solution for a few hours at a time.

The only way to get to 100 percent renewable energy without long-term storage is to massively overbuild solar and wind so that much of it is wasted during periods of normal demand but there is enough during peaks.

The only viable form of clean long-term power storage is hydrogen created through electrolysis. Power-to-gas-to-power involves using excess renewable energy to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, which is stored before being turned back into power, usually by burning it.


Transport produces about 27 percent of the UK’s greenhouse emissions in 2019 and so the sector is a major target in the race to decarbonise the economy.

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have attracted most of the attention when it comes to transport’s move away from the internal combustion engine, but they are not the whole story by any means.

Slow charging times and an unfavourable weight-to-power ratio make batteries a difficult choice for many larger vehicles, such as lorries, buses, trains and boats.

Truck and bus drivers have warmed to the use of hydrogen as a replacement for diesel, because of the similar refill times and range it offers. South Korea’s Hyundai, Germany’s Daimler, Sweden’s Volvo and Italy’s Iveco are among the companies bringing, or looking to bring, product to market.

The UK government plans to phase out diesel-powered trains, which make up almost 30 percent of the country’s fleet, by 2040. With just 42 percent of the track network electrified, alternative fuels are going to be needed, with clean hydrogen leading the pack.

The world’s first hydrogen train hit the tracks in Germany in 2018 and France’s first fleet is due to arrive in 2023. The UK’s first prototype hydrogen train made its maiden journey in September 2020 and is expected to carry passengers from the end of 2021.

In aviation, potentially the most challenging form of transport to decarbonise, progress is also being made, with Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury saying he expects the company to have a hydrogen jet plane in service by 2035.

Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury saying he expects the company to have a hydrogen jet plane in service by 2035.

Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury says he expects the company to have a hydrogen jet plane in service by 2035.

“Hydrogen has an energy density three times that of kerosene – [technically it] is made for aviation,” he told reporters at a sustainability event in Toulouse.


Residences were responsible for more than 15 percent of the UK’s greenhouse emissions in 2019, the fourth biggest source, less than “business” and more than agriculture.

That mainly came from carbon dioxide emitted by natural gas used for heating and cooking, both of which are particularly difficult to tackle thanks to our huge installed base of gas boilers and our love of cooking with gas.

While there is a push to electrify both domestic heating and cooking, clean hydrogen can allow us to leverage the almost 5,000 miles of pipes and other gas infrastructure in the UK.

Trials are already underway to blend 20 percent hydrogen into the UK’s gas network, which would allow consumers to continue to use the same appliances but with considerably lower carbon emissions. Should trials prove successful, 20 percent blend could be rolled out nationwide by 2023.

A mini grid has also been built in Cumbria by Northern Gas Networks to test the viability of using the UK’s existing gas grid to deliver 100 percent hydrogen, putting the UK at the cutting edge of research into the use of hydrogen in domestic networks.

The UK is particularly well placed to ramp up the use of hydrogen in the grid thanks to the existing infrastructure from 50 years of piping natural gas from the North Sea across the country, the same source as much of the nation’s vast wealth of wind energy.


Cement alone accounts for about 8 percent of all global greenhouse emissions, while other heavy industry, such as steel and aluminium manufacturing is also incredibly carbon intensive, with the former producing 1.83 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of steel.

While Chinese manufacturers have largely focused on maintaining traditional production techniques while capturing the carbon, European industrial heavyweights, such as Germany’s Thyssenkrupp, have embraced hydrogen as a route to rapid decarbonisation.

Hanson UK, the British unit of HeidelbergCement, is experimenting with the use of green hydrogen to replace natural gas in the burners at its plant in southern Wales. Chemicals company Ineos is building an electrolyzer in Rafnes, Norway to produce green hydrogen for use in its processes.

In short, clean hydrogen has a major role to play in decarbonising almost every aspect of the economy.

The biggest challenge to its successful deployment is finding enough of it at a price that allows its smooth integration with the global economy.