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Insights from Producing a UK Hydrogen Roadmap

Jan. 21, 2020
Integrating hydrogen into the system can be tricky, as it has unusual handling characteristics.

The UK government, and many UK companies, believe hydrogen and fuel cells are an essential part of the energy future. Today these technologies have limited availability and high costs, but by 2025 they could bring hundreds of millions of pounds of economic benefits. What can – and should – the UK do?

An increasingly consistent view – from both corporations and governments – is that hydrogen will play an important and perhaps essential role in a decarbonized energy future. For that future to be realized, in-depth analysis and planning are required, followed by rapid action. Hydrogen can help the energy system by acting as an energy store, which can be used in different ways. But integrating hydrogen into the system can be tricky, as it has unusual handling characteristics.  Getting the highest benefits from hydrogen also requires action from different stakeholders in the energy system. 

Roadmapping is a well-established technique, in which a future end goal is described, and then the developments and actions required to reach it are laid out. Actions are given specific owners, who are responsible for making sure that they happen, and for liaising with others. Hydrogen has many roadmaps, developed over different timescales for industry associations, individual companies, and national governments. The UK’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Roadmap was produced for and with actors from all of those areas, led by E4tech, with an aim to be pragmatic: “What can the UK realistically do to develop and subsequently benefit from hydrogen and fuel cells, taking into account its strengths and weaknesses and the evolving world around it?”

The Roadmap emphasized that the biggest benefits of HFC applications are only seen when the whole energy system is included, and when considering the long-term. But it also showed several applications that can stand alone without support right now, based on their economic value to customers: including portable power, remote power from fuel cells using portable fuels, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Other applications have benefits that justify policy support near-term – such as hydrogen buses that can improve urban air quality and reduce health impacts. These applications act as stepping stones towards lower costs, more robust supply chains and greater awareness. The ultimate end point was a role for hydrogen ‘as a major component of a future low carbon energy system’ with hydrogen potentially helping the UK meet its legally binding carbon reduction targets through three major routes: in heating, provided through modifying the existing gas infrastructure; in storing and transporting renewable electricity for use in multiple sectors; and its use with carbon capture and storage (CCS) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from carbon-containing fuels. To get to this end point requires a lot of intermediate steps, taken in the right order, and with the pathways periodically re-examined in case things have changed.

The analysis showed that hydrogen and fuel cells were also extremely important in transport, specifically in heavy-duty applications. Helpfully, while the UK is not as well-positioned in much of the passenger car space as others, it does have strengths in the less well-developed sectors in heavy duty – such as buses. So supporting those sectors would help the UK decarbonise but also reinforce and grow industrial capability and economic benefit – things which politicians are well-disposed to support.

The final area considered is the role of fuel cells in combined heat and power (CHP) applications. Even when fuelled with natural gas, intelligent deployment of fuel cell CHP could increase energy efficiency and reduce both CO2 and local air pollutant emissions. Using bio-based gases could further reduce CO2, and an ultimate switch to hydrogen could complete the energy system picture.

The Roadmap examined 11 technology and application areas in great detail, covering almost all hydrogen and fuel cell options and laying out specific opportunities and actions for each. But in almost all cases there are overarching actions needed to support several of them. For example, ensuring that CCS has a clear role and policy framework is essential for developments in the gas grid, in appliances, and in some areas of transport. Liquid fuels derived from hydrogen need to have their own coherent policy drivers, backed up by testing and analysis. Industry working groups need to be in place to feed diverse expertise into development of standards and to comment on policy.

When mapped out over time, the period to 2020 focuses on expanding the use of technologies available today, such as vehicles, fuel cell CHP and portable and specialist fuel cells, whilst planning and preparing for a greater role for hydrogen in the energy system. In 2020-2025 activity ramps up, with construction of systems needed for conversion of the gas grid to hydrogen, use of hydrogen in a wider range of vehicles, and multiple projects bringing regional benefits through production and use of hydrogen. After 2025 widespread use of hydrogen in heating, transport and industry is enabled by staged conversion of the gas grid, with low carbon hydrogen produced by routes including CCS.

The Roadmap was funded and supported by a consortium of stakeholders, representing different sectors and interests. For any national-scale endeavour this is important, and for one which touches so many sectors it is essential. It also brings two needs into sharp focus – for dialogue to balance different understanding and desires; and for ongoing tracking, guiding and modification of the roadmap itself. The external world changes, steps on the pathway are taken sooner or later than expected, or gaps between them are found. The roadmapping process and the Roadmap are useful and necessary, but only by putting them into practice will anything be achieved.

Jo Howes leads E4tech’s work on energy innovation and policy. She has particular expertise in biofuels and hydrogen, and in energy policy, gained at E4tech and at BP Biofuels.

Dr. David Hart leads E4tech’s work on fuel cells and hydrogen, working with governments, businesses and NGOs. He is recognised as one of the leading experts in hydrogen energy technology and infrastructure, and is a Visiting Professor at Imperial College London and chair of the Grove Fuel Cell Symposium.

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