The role of hydrogen in a net zero energy system

NEPC hydrogen report

In Low carbon energy, Net-zero

Government needs to accept the engineering realities of scaling up low-carbon hydrogen, says report:

  • Hydrogen likely to play a critical role in a net zero energy system according to National Engineering Policy Centre
  • The UK needs to act swiftly on hydrogen to avoid falling behind international competitors
  • Report outlines key risks and uncertainties that must be addressed if hydrogen production and use is to be low-carbon

The UK government must capture the opportunities presented by low-carbon hydrogen and scale up its production, according to a new report published by the National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC), a partnership of 42 professional engineering organisations led by the Royal Academy of Engineering. The report highlights risks associated with rapid scale up of low-carbon hydrogen production that must be managed to make the most of hydrogen’s potential to contribute to net zero, such as fugitive emissions from fossil fuel extraction and key dependencies on requisite technologies including carbon capture and storage (CCS), renewable electricity and electrolysers.

Hydrogen is likely to play a critical role in achieving net zero, according to the report, which identifies two key requirements that the UK would need to fulfil in the next few years if low-carbon hydrogen is to be successfully scaled up as part of a net zero energy system:

  • Achieve a rapid scaling up of low-carbon hydrogen infrastructure focusing on end uses where the greatest gains can be made from a whole-system decarbonisation perspective.
  • Manage the risks and dependencies when scaling up hydrogen value chains – including leakages, safety and public trust, skills gaps, cost uncertainties, regulations, blue and green hydrogen competition, and embodied carbon in infrastructure.

The report examines the suitability of hydrogen for major applications across the economy, including industry, power, transport and heat and buildings. It recommends that while the best use of low-carbon hydrogen has yet to be determined, low-carbon hydrogen should be available for the end uses in which hydrogen deployment has the potential to become the best or only low- or zero-carbon option available. The NEPC’s analysis highlights, for example, that hydrogen is likely to become the most effective or the only viable decarbonisation option for some end uses such as primary steelmaking, industrial heating and as a chemical feedstock for industrial process. This will maximise hydrogen’s value to decarbonisation of the whole energy system and to closing the emissions gap to put the UK on track with its Fifth and Sixth Carbon Budgets and the 2050 net zero target.

The role of hydrogen in a net zero energy system also advocates a region-specific approach to developing local hydrogen economies, with low-carbon hydrogen production and end use initially focused on industrial clusters where current production and use of grey hydrogen (produced using steam methane reforming) is already located. These clusters represent early opportunities to accelerate the UK’s transition towards low-carbon hydrogen including blue hydrogen (produced by steam methane reforming coupled with carbon capture and storage - CCS) and green hydrogen (produced by electrolysis using renewable electricity). It suggests that once low-carbon hydrogen production capacity and infrastructure has been sufficiently scaled up in these clusters, hydrogen deployment can be expanded to more widespread use in the energy system. The extent of hydrogen deployment will vary significantly across different regions but will need to keep pace with the development of the infrastructure, supply chains, skills and services needed for low-carbon hydrogen production and use.

Other policy recommendations outlined in the report include:

  • Developing and implementing an ambitious but pragmatic roadmap for how low-carbon hydrogen   production is to be scaled up to meet demand, with details about the contributions of each type of hydrogen production, including taking a whole system approach to the scaling up of key requisite technologies (ie CCS, renewable electricity generation, and electrolysers).
  • Investigating and ensuring the safety of hydrogen through further safety assessments. Outcomes of     the safety assessments should be used to establish safety standards to safeguard health and safety as hydrogen production, transportation, storage, and end use scale up in society. At the same time, the government should ensure meaningful public engagement and stakeholder engagement as the hydrogen value chain develops.
  • Implementing stringent, outcome-oriented low-carbon hydrogen standards that include emissions throughout the whole production and supply process to ensure a low level of CO2 per unit of hydrogen. These standards must incentivise engineering solutions for leakages in hydrogen infrastructure to minimise the atmospheric greenhouse effects of hydrogen and apply to any imports to avoid the risk of offshoring emissions.

Professor Nilay Shah OBE FREng Vice-Chair of the National Engineering Policy Centre Net Zero Working Group and a contributor to the report said: “Hydrogen is a highly versatile energy vector that could be used in many hard-to-decarbonise sectors where other energy vectors, such as electricity, may not be suitable. However, there is a significant gap between our current levels of low-carbon hydrogen production and the level the UK needs to meet its carbon budgets and achieve the target of net zero emissions by 2050. If the government’s commitment to hydrogen is to succeed it will require swift development of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity, which is essentially starting from scratch.”

Dervilla Mitchell CBE FREng Chair of the National Engineering Policy Centre Working Group said: “Hydrogen will likely play a critical role in achieving net zero. However, rapid development and deployment of hydrogen must be prioritised to capture its potential, while managing the risks and dependencies outlined in this report. We must prioritise low-carbon hydrogen where it can best add value to decarbonising the UK’s energy system as a whole. This is likely to be where it is either the best or the only low or zero carbon-option available and can achieve the highest carbon savings and cost efficiencies. Significant, urgent investment is needed if we are to successfully scale up hydrogen in time to maximise its capacity to reduce emissions and boost the UK’s economy.”