Hydrogen: silver bullet or lead balloon?

04 Apr 23

Hydrogen fuels may well prove to be more suited for use outside the built environment, particularly in the haulage, shipping and aviation sectors.


During the last 12 months, nearly 35% of UK grid electricity has been generated from renewables, predominantly wind, solar and hydroelectric sources. But with gas continuing to contribute 40% of generation, assuming that hydrogen production is viable and low or even net zero carbon, is there a place for it in this mix?

With the Future Homes and Future Buildings Standards coming into force in 2025, there is a real push to move away from the use of gas and coal to heat our buildings. As it stands, it’s intended that heat pump technology could lead the way on this shift, but the reuse of existing gas infrastructure could present an opportunity for hydrogen to contribute.

In fact, numerous hydrogen heating trials, such as the H100 Fife Project, are in the works, and hydrogen-ready boilers are becoming increasingly commercially available. In tandem with research into the viability of blending hydrogen into the existing gas grid, these initiatives will seek to demonstrate the potential for carbon-neutral hydrogen to deliver domestic heating. Seemingly, with most of these initiatives and trials still yet to commence, the extent to which hydrogen may be used viably in heating our buildings is yet unknown.

Hydrogen fuels may well prove to be more suited for use outside the built environment, particularly in the haulage, shipping and aviation sectors. Successful test flights have been undertaken for commercial-scale hydrogen-powered aeroplanes since 2020, including a 40-passenger capacity aeroplane in the USA earlier this month. Within shipping, research and tests are under way to power large-scale cruise liners, marine vessels and cargo ships using hydrogen fuel cell systems, with innovative hydrogen-powered prototypes promised to be unveiled in the coming months.

Whilst the market is trending towards batteries for smaller road vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells have been proven to be a reliable alternative to the traditional combustion engine. Hydrogen fuel-celled heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) are set to become commercially available this year, so an industry-wide shift is needed to provide refuelling stations globally. It has been demonstrated that, with on-board storage, hydrogen-powered HGVs are able to travel over a longer range than electric alternatives, with a faster refuelling process and greater cargo capacity. Bringing hydrogen into the mix could prove to be a significant contributor to reducing global road transport-related emissions.

So it’s clear that hydrogen does potentially have a place in the road to net-zero carbon emissions, particularly within the transport sector, but the extent to which it may play a part within the wider built environment remains to be seen, but it certainly can’t be ruled out yet.

Grace Wileman Associate,Iceni Futures