Could hydrogen be key to Scotland's net zero future?

Humankind’s first attempt at air travel was not – as many believe – the creation of aeroplanes that hurtle across continents and nations. In 1783, passengers huddled in airships that floated across the Atlantic between Europe and America – carried gently for thousands of miles.

Friday, 2nd October 2020, 5:03 pm
Updated Friday, 2nd October 2020, 5:04 pm
Glasgow will roll out a fleet of hydrogen buses
Glasgow will roll out a fleet of hydrogen buses

This was made possible by the lightest and most abundant element on the planet: hydrogen.

When hydrogen-filled silk balloons were attached to rigid frames and called Zeppelins, it was heralded as a miracle of air travel. But initial enthusiasm for these miraculous flying machines soon turned to dread. Hydrogen is also highly flammable. When the towering Hindenburg airship exploded in mid-air, blown to pieces by a lethal build-up of static electricity, hydrogen airships were quickly abandoned.

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Despite its ultimately catastrophic effect on air travel, this was only the first attempt at harnessing the potential of hydrogen. These early airborne experiments proved that hydrogen was bursting with potential. Scientists realised that the element’s combustible properties were as useful as they were dangerous.

Following its use of the atomic bomb on Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the US went one step further. Post-war, its millitary scientists ran tests on the much more powerful and deadly hydrogen – or H – bomb, and its lethal potential terrified the world.

Now, however, hydrogen has become a weapon not only of terror but of hope – a key tool in Scotland’s battle to help prevent climate chaos.

New kid on the block

Hydrogen is a relative newcomer to the renewable energy sector, but its potential to play a vital role in Scotland’s green economy is now leading the conversation in government and industry. Its proponents say that hydrogen is key to decarbonising the Scottish economy.

Lindsay McQuade, chief executive of ScottishPower Renewables, says hydrogen fuel will help power heavy-duty vehicles, because electrification “can only go so far”.

She’s in charge of Green Hydrogen for Scotland, a project bringing together leading names in renewables to provide hydrogen fuel to councils and private companies. Buses, ferries, lorries and even trains will soon use hydrogen to transport passengers and cargo across Scotland and into the rest of the UK and Europe.

McQuade says: “Making transport cleaner and greener is one of the key issues at the heart of how we can unlock net-zero and achieve the ambitious climate change targets set out at both regional and national levels over the next ten to 30 years.

“Our revolutionary approach... fully supports the large-scale transformation needed to replace heavy diesel vehicles with cleaner, greener alternatives.”

The project could transform swathes of Scotland’s transport system. It aims to build green hydrogen factories and clusters of refuelling stations across the country.

Putting hydrogen into the tanks of trucks, ships and double-deckers isn’t simple. It needs to be produced at plants, distributed safely to refuelling depots, then supplied to vehicles that are specially built or adapted to use the fuel. That means vehicle manufacturers play their part. “All they have to do is provide the vehicles,” McQuade points out.

The project will see Glasgow – a city with some of the most ambitious climate targets in the world – introduce fleets of hydrogen-powered buses as part of its ambition to use 100 per cent green energy to fuel such vehicles by 2029.

It follows Aberdeen City Council’s deployment of hydrogen fuel cell buses. Fuel cells convert energy from hydrogen into electricity, with water and heat as the only by-products. That makes them smoother and quieter as well as carbon neutral. Aberdeen’s new bus fleet has now driven one million miles and transported one million passengers. Its fuel cell fleet has doubled from ten to 20 buses and it is projected to grow to 50 vehicles.

Surf ’n’ Turf

Scotland’s island communities are at the forefront of hydrogen production. On the island of Eday in Orkney, the 150 residents collectively own a 900kw wind turbine. The Surf ’n’ Turf community project supports dozens of jobs and funds vital local services, including roads and healthcare, across the archipelago.

This wind power is being combined with tidal energy to convert and store energy as hydrogen. In Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall, project organisers are developing systems to make use of hydrogen and give local people the skills needed to generate, store and distribute the chemical element independently.

Such is the abundance of tidal, wave and wind energy on Orkney’s coast that surplus electricity is routinely diverted to the UK National Grid.

This spare energy will form the next milestone in Orkney’s renewable story. The EU-funded Big Hit project is the supercharged, mass production version of Surf ’n’ Turf. It will harness the islands’ unused energy – mainly from Eday and nearby Shapinsay – to produce hydrogen, which will then be stored and used locally. It is planned that it will heat ferries in Kirkwall harbour, fuel a fleet of light vehicles, and provide heating for buildings in and around the capital. If successful, Big Hit will provide a blueprint for similar projects in more isolated territories across Europe.

Hydrogen: hope or hype?

Cheerleaders for hydrogen point to its ability to make other renewables go further – using leftover energy from solar and wind to power isolated communities like Orkney, while boosting the UK’s electricity supply. And its unmatched energy density – hydrogen is the lightest atom in the universe – is perfect for storing and transporting, ready to meet demand when it is needed.

Jobs are being created from the training, installation and running of hydrogen technologies. And it could be that Scotland’s private sector will be enlisted to expand hydrogen projects into other countries – provided the public and private sector keep up or surpass the speed of development shown by nations such as Japan and Germany.

However, it’s not all good news. Scotland’s renewables industry was bolstered by membership of the EU, and Brexit is expected to impede the country’s ability to attract investment and expertise in this area.

And some warn that, while important, hydrogen has its limitations. Fabrice Leveque, head of policy and advocacy at conservation group WWF Scotland, agrees that low-carbon hydrogen is needed for Scotland to reach net-zero, especially in areas of heavy industry and transport where there may be fewer viable alternatives. He says: “The cleanest hydrogen will be made from renewable electricity, so it’s good to see projects to test this potential taking place in Scotland.”

But, he adds: “While hydrogen will have a role, it’s no silver bullet. We don’t yet know how much clean hydrogen will cost, nor how much we can produce sustainably, so we should only plan to use it in those sectors that really need it.”

Hydrogen is the most abundant atom in the universe, making up 75 per cent of matter. Found in the Sun and most stars, it also forms 90 per cent of the planet Jupiter. But can this plentiful chemical element really change the way we live, work and travel here on Earth?

With the devastating effects of climate change being felt across the world, perhaps we cannot afford to wait to put hydrogen at the centre of Scotland’s green future.