Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Opportunities in the UK

Red hydrogen bus by Wrightbus in London

Since the government passed the Clean Growth Strategy at the end of 2017, the UK’s hydrogen and fuel cell sector has been picking up speed. Despite Brexit headaches, politicians, business executives and researchers see the technologies as a great chance to set up key value chains across the country and turn it into a leading market for hydrogen-based heat. The UK’s BEIS department, which is in charge of implementing the strategy, has likewise been promoting the use of hydrogen to generate heat and power means of transportation.

Besides sourcing the gas from renewable energies, the United Kingdom has focused on producing hydrogen by reforming natural gas, including carbon capture, utilization and storage. But demonstration projects especially will have to manage without funding from Brussels soon, considering the impending Brexit.

Hydrogenics

At present, the country’s universities, research institutes and businesses are involved in dozens of EU projects to promote hydrogen and fuel cell technology, either as coordinating organizations or partners in a consortium. The government, however, has already announced it would make up for the lack of EU funding in research and infrastructure buildup, so that all currently running ventures would not have to be stopped. What has not been clear yet is whether the same funds going into the establishment of a market, that is, all efforts to demonstrate hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, will continue as well. It is one issue where UK firms are at risk of no longer being able to commercialize their ideas.

Heat utilities turn to hydrogen stored in natural gas

For the UK to be able to meet its climate targets, it will have to transform its heat market above all else. Nearly all of the thermal energy and over one-third of electricity is generated by burning natural gas, with greenhouse gas emissions to match. More than 80 percent of residents, from a total population of 66.5 million, use natural gas for cooking and heating. Gas boilers are part of most of the 27 million households, as well as offices, stores and commercial property. These wall-hung devices provide a reliable and low-cost supply of space heating and hot water in little time and with little noise. It is one feature that distinguishes the country’s heat market from probably any other in Europe.

To control the emissions levels that accompany gas burning, the government passed a heat strategy in 2013. It is focused on making the sector run on electricity and renewable energies. Alternative options such as electric heat pumps, district heating and biomass burning, as used in other countries at a large scale, have yet to make a discernible impact in the UK. Compared to gas burners, the aforementioned alternatives are pretty expensive and disadvantageous to British users, as they would need more space or more efforts to manage the systems.

read more: January issue 2019

Written by Alexandra Huss

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