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Kirsty Hammond looks at the success of a trial on Orkney and asks whether hydrogen is the answer and to what question?

The recipe for hydrogen as a sustainable energy source is simple, large amounts of water, a huge electrolyte and plenty of electricity.

If the electricity comes from a renewable source such as wind, solar or tidal power then in effect the hydrogen is entirely green!

In theory there are lots of things that green hydrogen can be used for. It can be burnt for possible domestic situations, or it can even be considered to power fuel cells in cars and ships.

If we are as a country to meet our hefty environmental targets then we need to be investing our optimism in these new systems.

One suggested path to net-zero is electrifying our whole energy system and relying on clean renewable power only. Green hydrogen is without doubt a potential low carbon fuel of our future.

Home heating using hydrogen may not be the panacea that some are advocating.

Kirsty Hammond Kirsty Hammond Editor of Specifier Review

An ideal testing ground

Green hydrogen seems to be the center of many talks at the moment across the globe.

However, a little closer to home on a tiny island known to tolerate the harsh climate of the North Atlantic sea, the Orkney Islands are proving an ideal test ground for our renewable energy boom.

Orkney is a wind swept archipelago 10 miles off the Scottish mainland, it is home to an abundance of marine and avian life. 

The island, although lacking in trees, contains some of the oldest and best preserved Neolithic sites in Europe.

Orkney is also attracting the eyes of the world as it’s renewable energy success may soon be a source of interest for consumers further afield.

Since 2013 the islands have been producing more than 100% of the electricity needed for the residents through a combination of wind, sun, tides and waves.

A surplus of carbon neutral electricity is something most governments could only wish for as we hurtle towards a climate emergency and steep future targets.

Carbon neutral

Orkney is home to the European Marine Energy Centre which is currently and successfully testing wave and tidal machines, alongside several other pioneering technologies.

The spare power generated is already being utilised to make hydrogen and oxygen.

The Orcadians are also planning to use the hydrogen to power a small fleet of small boats that could connect the inhabitants of the islands. It is also possible that a small hydrogen plane may be a consideration, it could seat small numbers of the community and workers.

The first homes including boilers, stoves and ovens fuelled by hydrogen are set to be ready this year and could be a glimpse of the homes of the future.

Unlike traditional appliances, these ones are to be carbon neutral at the point of use.

The opportunity for green hydrogen to be applied across so many sectors of our industries allows us for perhaps the first time to glimpse a viable reduction of the use of fossil fuels and a future without them.

Several of the major players in the oil industry are continually jostling to be the front runner in the production of green hydrogen. This keen interest may be critical to allowing this particular green energy source to become commercially viable.

Slicing the hydrogen pie

Who else will be keen to grab a slice of the pie?

Early hopes that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles could dominate our homes and roads have slightly faded.

There are very few hydrogen passenger vehicles on the road, the EV market however is booming. Hydrogen however is still expected to play a role.

The construction industry can expect hydrogen powered forklifts and heavy duty trucks to be common sight.

Shipping, industry and agriculture are also areas where hydrogen can help with carbon reduction.

Using hydrogen where its most effective

Whilst the fossil fuel industry will be quick to point to the success of the Orkney trials, the mass market viability of hydrogen has yet to be fully proven.

There are also other industries that could benefit from the carbon reduction capabilities of hydrogen technology and, some would argue, should be the focus on development ahead of home heating – where there are already viable, low carbon solutions, such as heat pumps.

Michael Liebreich, a speaker, analyst, advisor and investor in the future economy has written on his LinkedIn page about the ‘clean hydrogen ladder’.

His central premise is clear, if and when viable hydrogen use becomes available, there are several sectors ahead of home heating that it should be used for first.

He equates the use of hydrogen to the familiar ‘A to G’ energy rating and places sectors such as fertilisers and desulphurisation (A), Shipping, steel production and off-road vehicles (B), and long-haul aviation and river vessels (C) far, far ahead of domestic heating (F).

There are many areas that we need to decarbonise and using hydrogen could help in many sectors, so whilst the Orkney trials look good – especially for island communities, it may not be the panacea to mainland home heating that some are advocating.

As the implications and horrors of not becoming sustainable are apparent to see across the world, continued development in this area is vital. Changes to the urban environment and the planet as a whole present continuous challenges within the modern world.

We need to repeatedly strive to be as sustainable as possible, we need to continue demonstrating a high level of consideration for the world around us.

Kirsty Hammond Editor of Specifier Review