A new report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) concludes that hydrogen is a credible option to help decarbonise the UK energy system, but its role depends on early government commitment and improved support to develop the UK’s industrial capability.

The CCC’s Hydrogen in a low-carbon economy report finds that hydrogen can make an important contribution to long-term decarbonisation if combined with greater energy efficiency, cheap low-carbon power generation, electrified transport, and new ‘hybrid’ heat pump systems, which have been successfully trialled in the UK.

There remain significant obstacles to the decarbonisation of industry, transportation, and heat even as the UK has focused on cleaning up electricity generation over the last decade. A combination of energy efficiency and the electrification of the economy can continue to reduce UK emissions substantially. However, this is not enough to reach full decarbonisation in every sector.

The potential of hydrogen as a zero-carbon energy source has always been recognised, yet in previous assessments it has been impractical or overly expensive to roll out at scale. The report finds hydrogen could replace natural gas in parts of the energy system, where electrification is not feasible or is prohibitively expensive, for example in providing heat on colder winter days, industrial heat processes and back-up power generation.

Hydrogen should be viewed as a credible option in the next stage of the UK’s energy transition.

However, hydrogen is not a ‘silver bullet’ solution. The report also explores some commonly-held misconceptions, highlighting the need for careful planning:

  • Switching the gas grid to 100% hydrogen is impractical for zero carbon heat. The UK has an extensive natural gas grid but it’s unlikely that the best approach will be to reuse the grid entirely and burn hydrogen in domestic boilers as we do with natural gas today. The report explores a variety of credible options involving a mix of technologies (at similar costs) to provide low-carbon heat
  • Producing bulk hydrogen from renewable electricity is expensive. Hydrogen generated by ‘surplus’ electricity from renewable sources is unlikely to match the potential scale of demand. Were we to build dedicated renewables capacity for ‘bulk’ hydrogen production through electrolysis, it would be very challenging and unnecessarily expensive. Using natural gas (with CCS) will help to scale the industry and offer a cost-effective route to produce lower volumes of hydrogen
  • Hydrogen from fossil fuels is not zero-carbon even when using CCS. Imported natural gas is likely to be the main energy source in hydrogen production. However, using natural gas is not a zero-carbon process, even when the carbon is removed (‘reformed’), captured and stored.

The CCC will continue to monitor how technological developments could impact the future role of hydrogen in the UK’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

Lord Deben, Chairman of the CCC, said: “Hydrogen has the potential to contribute to near-zero carbon energy emissions if used strategically. The government must now decide whether it wishes to develop a UK hydrogen option, taking decisions now that will see the first deployment in the 2020s.

“This must be in parallel with efforts to improve energy efficiency, build further low-cost renewables and get carbon capture and storage underway. The time for the government to move from theory to practice has arrived.”