A big binary decision on hydrogen is not the approach we need

Chris Manson WhittonFocusing on “Net Zero by 2050” fundamentally misunderstands the problem of the Climate Crisis. While the destination is absolutely critical, it is the journey which will dictate the success of the outcome writes  Chris Manson Whitton, director, Progressive Energy.

Our complex climate is not a linear system; there will be key tipping points with feedback loops of cause and effect. Failure to make rapid progress increases the risks and consequences of such events. Like discounted cashflows, envisaging a perfect step change solution in 2049 is practically worthless compared with banking continuous improvement over the intervening 30 years. On a practical level, it is only by making physical interventions that we truly learn and find out which solutions help us make most progress.  Placing all the chips on a final decision in the 2040s is a big bet.

This is why the carbon budgets produced by the Committee on Climate Change are so crucial; they break down the necessary milestones on the journey, backed by independent evaluation of the progress to date.

Given the size of the climate problem and the complexity of society, we will need a range of solutions to deliver the outcome we are seeking. We must take the carbon out of transporting our people and goods, reduce the carbon embedded into products and construction materials, and deliver low carbon ways to keep us safe and warm. The most cost effective, deliverable and resilient outcome will be achieved with a breadth of solutions.

Hydrogen is a part of that solution. It can deliver to all parts of the energy system, whether it is providing: high intensity heat to industry; dispatchable power when neither the sun is shining nor the wind blowing; long distance transportation; or delivering the type of heat required by the UK’s housing stock.

We need to move from the view that there is a ‘big binary decision’ to be made about hydrogen. This results in two unhelpful misconceptions: (a) that there are no benefits from hydrogen unless the whole network is converted and (b) that it is possible to inform that kind of decision without operational experience. Neither is true. Customers, operators, financiers, policymakers and regulators need such experience relating to the full supply chain from production and distribution to final use.  In terms of hydrogen, blending into the gas grid is a key part of building customer engagement, providing full chain experience and delivering early deployment.

The HyDeploy Programme has made excellent progress in demonstrating blended gas operation at Keele University on a network of around 30 university buildings and 100 domestic properties. This is being followed by a public network trial with over 660 properties in Winlaton, near Gateshead, establishing the core safety case. These forms of pilot projects engage with customers and deliver the necessary confidence in safe operations.

To transform pilot energy projects into delivery requires a raft of policy and regulatory developments. Sources of hydrogen need to be brought on stream, with business models that enable application of capital by the private sector. Regulations and codes need to be updated, and suppliers, operators and developers need the confidence in government policy to change their day to day operations to accommodate the changes.

Policies and legislation such as the Renewables Obligation and Electricity Market Reform, alongside the governance structures to deliver them, enabled the build out of low carbon electricity. We need the same policies and mechanics of governments to unlock delivery of wider low carbon energy savings. Whilst these may not be as exciting as the physical demonstrations and pilots, they are nonetheless fundamental.

We see this starkly with Covid19 testing. While a £100 Billion moonshot is interesting, most agree that what is most important is the hard graft of delivering incrementally increased daily testing next week and next month. Just like addressing the Climate Crisis, it is that grounded daily progress that stands the greatest chance of avoiding, or minimising the risk of, irreversible tipping points.

The Climate Change act, with its all-important 2019 update to ‘net zero’ is so powerful because it included the requirement for intervening carbon budgets, and independent reporting by the CCC. This may not be the part which catches the headlines, but it is this accountability that transforms aspiration into action.

Let’s see this cascade into everyday decisions – today.

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