At a Policy Exchange fringe this afternoon there was a consensus that something has changed in the Government’s view of energy in the last year.
The event, with shadow energy minister Alan Whitehead, Cadent and Alstom, discussed how to decarbonise the economy beyond electrification.
The question is this – if the future of decarbonisation is electrification, what does this mean in reality? Natural gas is a much greater component of the UK’s energy system than other forms of generation – including nuclear, renewables, coal and other forms. In fact, a transition to electrification (without gas) might require a tripling of the UK’s electricity requirements.
Labour’s shadow energy minister Alan Whitehead concluded that this was a “fantasy”. He said there would be a requirement for other technologies in the mix – including hydrogen.
That got to the nub of the question – in the last six months to a year, hydrogen has risen up the political agenda. It provides a solution for decarbonising many hard-to-reach sectors, for example freight, logistics and many industries. Given the cost reductions in offshore wind and solar, policymakers are starting to shift their focus away from decarbonising electricity, to decarbonising trickier segments of the economy.
The UK has, so far, not picked up hydrogen production in a coordinated way, but there are promising signs his is changing. Industry is investing millions in new hydrogen production facilities and demonstration projects for blending hydrogen into existing gas infrastructure. Government has also started investing in infrastructure too.
Yet the approach to hydrogen currently lacks the coordinated Governmental approach that is offered to batteries. This is a pity, because there are many ways that hydrogen is complementary to batteries – including longer-term storage options as a “seasonal battery”. Soon, the UK might even see the first hydrogen trains running on its rails.
Alan Whitehead outlined how Labour sees hydrogen as being essential to decarbonising broad swathes of the economy, from heating to logistics.
However, there was also a note of caution. Hydrogen production will likely need Carbon Capture and Storage technology in the short to medium term. It also requires a massive change in the gas network, akin to the transition from town gas to natural gas.
This means Government needs to start acting now if it wants to make this a reality. For its part, Labour needs to hold the Government to account if it fails to do so.