As the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow approaches, it is only to be expected that charities, lobbyists, special interest groups and an alphabet soup of international bodies will attempt to steer the conversation in their direction.
The IEA (International Energy Agency, not to be confused with the Institute for Economic Affairs think tank) has published its contribution this week, ‘Net Zero by 2050’, which contains more than 400 milestones that have to be met if net zero carbon emissions is to be achieved by 2050.
Many of the policy suggestions are sensible, and many are inevitable, e.g. economies of scale and advances in technology will mean that wind and solar electricity generation will naturally make up a larger proportion of the generation mix. On the other hand, some suggestions require frankly heroic assumptions regarding both individuals and governments.
In this country, one of the bigger fights will be in transitioning people towards new methods of heating their homes. In a slightly over-excited fashion, the BBC have reported one of the IEA’s recommendations as ‘Ban new gas boilers from 2025 to reach net zero’. Given that 80 per cent of British homes have a gas boiler, and about 1.7m are sold each year, this would seem to be somewhat ambitious. In fact, the report suggests that it is only boilers which solely burn natural gas that should be phased out. Those which can also burn hydrogen are described as ‘zero-carbon ready’ and are fine, provided that the gas network itself can be converted to run on hydrogen, and that enough hydrogen can be produced.
Currently most hydrogen produced is so-called ‘grey hydrogen’, made from natural gas but which produces carbon dioxide emissions in the process. If the carbon is captured in the process it is called ‘blue hydrogen’. Finally, if renewable or clean energy sources are used, this is referred to as ‘green hydrogen’ signifying that there are almost no carbon emissions anywhere in its production.
Scaling up hydrogen production is a significant challenge if it is to supplant natural gas over the next decade, but not impossible. There are also opportunities for oil and gas companies to move away from providing fossil fuels and into hydrogen.
Nuclear power, which is effectively zero-carbon and produces vast amounts of constant energy, is ideal for producing green hydrogen through electrolysis. Recent news that a new fleet of ‘mini nuclear reactors’ built by a Rolls-Royce-led consortium which is seeking design approval is surely to be welcomed.
The IEA also proposes a substantial increase in nuclear power. ‘Sharply reducing the roles of nuclear power and carbon capture would require even faster growth in solar PV [panels] and wind, making achieving the net zero goal more costly and less likely.’
Hydrogen fuel cells are also an alternative to batteries in electric vehicles, and have the advantage of weighing less, have greater power density, increased range, and faster refuelling.
A coherent plan, therefore, starts to come into view. A hydrogen economy, where vehicles run on fuel cells and homes can use their existing heating systems, while oil and gas companies can work on the transition (sustaining employment and current industries), all backed up by a mix of new nuclear and renewable energy. How could anyone possibly object?
As usual, you can rely on the Greens. Objecting to the Scottish Government’s hydrogen strategy, the Scottish Greens energy spokesperson Mark Ruskell said: ‘Hydrogen is far from a silver bullet. Clean, green, hydrogen energy is better than from the fantasy of “blue hydrogen”, proposed by the oil and gas sector, but it is a technology that is still some way off. With only nine years left until climate science tells us is a point of no return, we simply don’t have time to wait to become early adopters of a new technology.’
In other words, forget about innovating our way out of the crisis, forget about securing employment for the thousands of people in the oil and gas sector (and the associated tax revenues), and forget about potentially creating new industries in modular nuclear and hydrogen technologies. Coupled with their policies of banning the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars, and generally reducing economic growth, it is clear that the idea of compromising with the real world is still beyond the Greens.
Given the persistent travails of the Labour party, there is a chance that the Greens could, over time, supplant them as the natural home of left-leaning voters, much as has happened in Germany. But to do that, they will have to dispense with their natural catastrophism and start selling a bright and shiny new future, one with new industries and new jobs, and opportunities for economic growth. There would be no better place for them to start than the hydrogen economy.