10 December 2020

The sky’s the limit for Britain’s emerging hydrogen industry

By Virginia Crosbie MP

It’s a rare opportunity to be witness to the birth of a new industry, however as we strive towards net zero, we’ve already seen brand new sectors flourish, such as our world-leading offshore wind industry, and the re-established nuclear supply chain with Hinkley Point C.

The path to Net Zero is by no means easy – there’s no silver bullet to solving climate change. When we look at what will be needed to decarbonise heavy industries, cargo ships and domestic heating, it’s clear that it’s not as simple as electrifying everything.

The buzzword around Westminster at the moment is hydrogen. Hydrogen presents an opportunity to make the energy transition that little bit easier; a fuel which produces no carbon emissions, unlocking those harder to reach areas.

Establishing the hydrogen industry also means creating a new market for it to be traded and consumed in. This also means getting to grips with the upfront cost implications of building the infrastructure required to store and transport it.

Complicating matters further is the unavoidable reality that hydrogen does not come out of the ground, or grow on trees. It requires large amounts of energy to be created at scale, and where that energy comes from is crucial.

Hydrogen for the most part currently comes from ‘Steam Methane Reformation’, which uses natural gas and therefore produces significant carbon emissions. The other method is electrolysis, but the carbon emissions from this is heavily dependent on the cleanliness of the electricity used.

When green hydrogen is discussed, renewables dominate the conversation, however there is another zero-carbon technology which can play a major role: nuclear power.

While it is difficult to forecast exactly what hydrogen demand will be in 2050, we know it will substantial. There must be a guarantee of supply, like we have with the National Grid. Nuclear provides that security, generating vast amounts of energy from a small geographical footprint. I’ve already mentioned Hinkley Point C – when that’s operating, it will supply 7% of demand, just from one power station.

Nuclear’s offering to the hydrogen economy should not be taken for granted. While it currently supplies around 20% of the UK’s energy needs and could easily contribute to hydrogen production the same way renewables can, the trick up nuclear’s sleeve is the sheer amount of primary heat that comes from reactors.

The Government, in its Ten Point Plan, announced hundreds of millions of pounds for Advanced Modular Reactors [AMRs] because of their ability to operate at over 800°C. Such high-grade heat, with the right catalysts, can split water into hydrogen and oxygen without any need for electrolysis. No other energy source can simultaneously generate this much heat and electricity with no carbon emissions.

Further to this, AMRs hold the possibly of kick starting the production of synthetic fuels for aviation, shipping and agriculture.

The Government’s target of building a demonstrator AMR in the early 2030s shows we are serious about the challenge ahead, and also presents opportunities that perfectly compliments the levelling up agenda.

My own constituency of Ynys Môn is perfectly placed to take full advantage of all aspects of this, with plenty of infrastructure already in place to not only produce hydrogen, but transport it within the UK, and export around the world.

Net Zero requires us to make decisions now, and to pursue the path which gives us the greatest certainty of reaching our target over the next 30 years.

If we are serious about both decarbonising our electricity network, and establishing a truly zero-carbon hydrogen economy, nuclear power is a great place to start.

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Virginia Crosbie is MP for Ynys Môn.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.