As countries around the globe commit to a low carbon future, the potential contribution green and blue hydrogen can make in achieving net zero targets has increasingly come to the fore.  The falling cost of renewable energy and the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions makes green hydrogen an especially attractive option for decarbonising industry, transport and domestic heating.

This, however, is not the first time that hydrogen has been touted as the ‘silver bullet’ of the energy sector.  Previous peaks of interest in hydrogen all failed to lead to much.  So, after an initial false start, has the hydrogen revolution finally begun?

There are reasons to be optimistic.  Green hydrogen takes centre stage in the EU’s Green Deal and there has been significant public and private investment in developing hydrogen generating technologies across Europe.

The UK is equally committed.  Government funding has been awarded to numerous hydrogen projects looking to develop and deploy low carbon technologies (including hydrogen fuel switching) as part of the Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge which aims to see one industrial cluster fully decarbonised by 2040.  Spurred on by accusations that the UK risked ‘missing the boat’ on hydrogen, the government is committed to publishing a UK Hydrogen Strategy this year.

Irrespective – the challenges remain.  Achieving large-scale low carbon hydrogen production across the country will be no mean feat.  The development of the necessary infrastructure, policies and regulations are all hurdles that need to be overcome on the path to a UK hydrogen economy.

While technical and economic challenges will remain front and centre, there is another challenge that must not be disregarded.  Public opinion.

Studies suggest that public knowledge and understanding of hydrogen remains low.  In June 2020 Leeds Beckett University found 68 per cent of those surveyed were indifferent or undecided about low carbon energy technologies like hydrogen, and its potential to decarbonise the heat and transport the public rely on every day.  Reasons ranged from lack of knowledge and/or engagement on the subject, and a cynicism that hydrogen presented the correct solution.  For example, it is not widely understood that heating in our buildings and industries accounts for over a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

For hydrogen to become a mainstream energy source, public understanding, acceptance and approval is crucial – particularly if it’s going to be used for domestic heating.  Failure to put the public at the heart of a process which sees the UK gas system replaced risks a major issue for Net Zero policies if people cannot see a discernible reason for change.

The North West Hydrogen Alliance has called for the development of an independent Net Zero body to launch a communications campaign aimed at the general public.[1]  It believes that an understanding of hydrogen should not be limited to those within the sector.   The public needs to be informed and educated on the potential costs, performance and safety aspects.  More importantly, they need to understand the environmental benefits of using hydrogen.

Last month, the UK’s largest gas companies published a blueprint setting out how they intend to meet Britain’s hydrogen ambitions on the back of the government’s 10-point green plan.[2]  This includes the target to make 20 percent of gas used in our homes hydrogen by 2023 and deliver the first hydrogen town by 2030.  We cannot afford to delay anymore.  We need to have a wide-reaching conversation that starts now.

Ellie Hainsworth is an account executive at Camargue

[1] Call for specialist body to lead public opinion on Net Zero The Business Desk 19 November 2020

[2] Hydrogen transition laid out in gas industry blueprint Engineering & Technology 21 January 2021