Sustainable Energy

A Hydrogen Economy – Navigating a Perfect Storm to a Low Carbon Future?

The age of the known universe, this being the time elapsed since the Big Bang, is estimated by astronomers and physical cosmologists to be approximately 14 billion years and within the known universe hydrogen gas is the lightest and most plentiful chemical. It is the first element in the periodic table with an atomic number of one and its place in the future is driven by its ability to support the drive toward a low-carbon economy. In their third and final article in the current series, Forensic Engineer Professor Robert Jackson and Solicitor Peter McHugh discuss the efforts to be faced in order to phase out fossil fuels and limit global warming whilst addressing numerous technical challenges linked to hydrogen storage, conveyance and use, coupled with legal hurdles relating to safety and environmental damage.

Recently much has been stated about a booming UK-wide hydrogen economy worth billions of pounds, creating thousands upon thousands of jobs, playing an important role in decarbonising our polluting and energy-intensive industries and transport systems, and moving away from our dependence on fossil fuels. But the UK government is ‘missing a trick’ as whilst it promotes a hydrogen revolution with home-grown clean energy to tackle climate change, to create a thriving low-carbon economy and to embrace ‘Net Zero’, it fails to enjoin these efforts with the urgent need to deal with the UK’s ever-increasing waste disposal crisis.

A ‘perfect storm’, a term first used in the Oxford English Dictionary in the early eighteenth century, represents an unusually severe meteorological event formed from a rare combination of atmospheric phenomena. A generation later, from around 1750 onwards, human activity had increased the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and a further century later in 1848 the term was used in the first edition of William Makepeace Thackeray‘s novel Vanity Fair. Since 1850 humankind has pumped 2,400 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere creating concentrations of the gas that had not been seen on Earth in the past 2 million years. By 2021 the measured atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide were almost 50% higher than pre-industrial levels, with natural sources of this gas accounting for a concentration more than twenty times greater than that from man-made sources.

In spite of these worrying statistics, the UK’s carbon emissions have actually fallen by almost a third over the past decade largely due to the targeting of industrial sources largely comprising factories and ageing fossil fuel power stations. But future initiatives to end the UK’s contribution to global warming must now focus upon the structured development of a zero carbon economy through the construction of more efficiently heated dwellings. This should partly address Britain’s habit of employing billions of cubic metres of climate-polluting gas each year to heat draughty homes and buildings. In tandem there will also be the need to replace existing carbon-laden fuels, used extensively throughout heavy industry and for long-distance travel, with clean-burning hydrogen gas. However, the political dilemma posed by these simultaneous ambitions relates to balancing the need to meet legally binding climate targets whilst not crippling lower-income voters still reeling from the financial toll of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Because of this misalignment between economic and climate change recovery, the UK is unlikely to meet its earnest desire to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Indeed, the problem is compounded by the findings of a recent audit conducted through the Institute for Government (IfG) which claims that the UK’s green recovery package has been “less ambitious” than that of other major economies and in particular on policy initiatives relating to R&D, electric vehicles and housing. Even an interim target of reducing UK economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% of 1990 levels by 2030 appears problematic whilst the country recovers from the pandemic.   

Hydrogen is placed under the definition of ‘gas’ in the Gas Act 1986 and as such is regulated as part of the gas network. At present there is little legislation specifically relating to hydrogen gas and projects associated with its production, conveyance, and storage. There is therefore very little guidance on how this relatively new product is to be regulated in what is an evolving market. The UK market for hydrogen is at present regulated by the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority operating through Ofgem, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, in accordance with the Gas Safety (Management) Regulations 1996. This legislation as matters currently stand permits only a 0.1% concentration of hydrogen to be injected into the UK gas network but this existing limit is now being challenged to increase the hydrogen blend to up to a 20% concentration. If successful, this may require either new regulations to be introduced or for existing regulations to be amended to permit the higher figure. 

Hydrogen infrastructure projects require a Development Consent Order under the Planning Act 2008. Smaller projects and pipelines may be regulated through the Town & Country Planning Act 1990. Different regulations we believe will apply to hydrogen storage. For instance, an environmental impact assessment may be required if the gas is to be stored on site or transported via pipelines as required by the Town & Country Planning Act (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2017. As with other gases, hydrogen is heavily regulated from a health and safety perspective with the Health and Safety Executive requiring compliance with the following regulations: the Planning (Hazardous Substances) Regulation 2015; the Pipeline Safety Regulations (1996); the Gas Safety (Management) Regulations 1996; and the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 2015 relating to hydrogen storage. The Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmosphere Regulations 2002 sets out the requirements for the use of equipment and protective systems in potential hazardous environments, including those where hydrogen is produced or stored. At the moment, SSE plc a multinational energy company listed on the London Stock Exchange with origins in two public sector electricity supply authorities, is jointly developing plans with ‘Equinor’, a Norwegian oil and gas company, to store hydrogen in existing underground salt caverns.

The UK is not on track to meet existing carbon targets and its goal of a 78% emissions reduction by 2035 will not be possible without deep energy efficiency measures. Furthermore, to achieve net-zero conditions it is estimated that a 1% GDP investment is necessary compared with the current expenditure level of just 0.01%. To add insult to injury, current levels of spending are also well below government investment on items that will actually add to emissions. These include tens of billions of pounds worth of major civil engineering projects such as airport expansion works and new highway schemes which will only make it easier to burn more fossil fuels. Existing civil engineering infrastructure will also be hard pushed to contain and protect against extensive flooding due to the unrestricted burning of gas, coal and oil which lead directly to the environmental impacts of melting ice caps and rising sea-levels.

The message is clear, humanity must break its fossil fuel dependency and the 26th annual meeting of the UN Conference of Parties COP26, to be held in Glasgow on 1st November of this year, will allow more than 190 participating nations to send teams of climate negotiators to agree an international strategy for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) corporate sustainability scheme, recruits individual companies to set ‘science-based’ carbon reduction goals in line with the demands of the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming ‘well below 20C’. However, no nation is legally bound to do anything to meet this goal and instead countries have set their own targets based on what they believe to be achievable.

Recent warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have also cited unequivocal evidence of humanity’s massive act of atmospheric interference, with greenhouse gas emissions propelling the UK to a calamitous fiery future triggered by extreme climate change. So, can nature come to the rescue? Through photosynthesis trees produce oxygen whilst at the same time absorbing carbon dioxide gas through carbon sequestration, but it is imperative that agreements are reached as quickly as possible on methods to phase out coal-fired power stations around the globe and simultaneously protect forested areas of the planet. An injection of urgency is now overdue but a few words of caution are warranted. Navigating a route to a low carbon future is commendable but the science and engineering associated with hydrogen fuel is hazardous because of three major factors: the low energy required for its ignition; the high energy produced from its combustion; and the ease with which it leaks from storage tanks.

In conclusion, during the 1650’s, an English philosopher by the name of Thomas Hobbes contributed written works on a diverse range of topics including geometry and the physics of gases. He is also credited with one of the first appearances of the expression ‘to kill two birds with one stone’ which expounds the concept of ‘achieving two objectives with one action’ or ‘satisfying two arguments with one answer’. So, whilst organic and other fast-growing waste streams, including plastics, can present an enormous potential source of hydrogen, it is a diverse range of methods for safely producing and harnessing the gas from waste material that is key to it becoming a successful fuel. This then would offer the sustainable prospect of ‘killing two birds with one stone’ by way of producing a clean fuel whilst treating troublesome wastes.

About the authors:

About the authors:

Peter McHugh is a Partner at Clarke Willmott Solicitors.  He specialises in Construction as well as Green Energy issues and is a Chartered Arbitrator and Accredited Mediator.

Professor Robert Jackson is the former Associate Head of the School of Computing, Science & Engineering, and held the Mouchel-Parkman Chair in Sustainable Engineering Technologies within the Department of Civil Engineering, at the University of Salford.

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