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Energy / Is hydrogen the fuel of the future? Aberdeen academic has his doubts

A SENIOR academic from Aberdeen University has issued a word of caution regarding the huge expectation around the role hydrogen could play in helping to mitigate the climate crisis.

Professor Tom Baxter of the university’s school of engineering is warning that the future potential of hydrogen is being oversold and that significant steps to combat climate change can be achieved now – and more quickly – with technologies that already exist.

His comments come after Strathclyde University announced yesterday (Tuesday) that it had joined the ORION project, set up by Shetland Islands Council (SIC) with the ambition for the isles to become an international clean energy hub.

Strathclyde University partners with Shetland renewables project

The project aims to use electricity from onshore wind farms to help offshore oil and gas installations to transition to net zero, while transforming Shetland current dependency on fossil fuels to “affordable clean energy”.

It further envisages creating a green hydrogen export business at industrial scale, fuelled by a possible offshore wind farm to the East of Shetland.

Baxter, a senior lecturer in chemical engineering with 40 years experience of working in the oil and gas industry, said it is very easy to paint a “compelling picture for hydrogen”.

That, however, changes when one starts looking closer at what is required to produce, store and distribute the fuel on an industrial scale, he said.

Professor Tom Baxter: ‘Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe but it doesn’t come for free.’

Baxter said he did not want to knock anyone’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions but felt that the focus should be on energy efficiency and electrification rather than on hydrogen.

”The hydrogen story is very seductive as it burns to water – it is the most abundant element in the universe but it doesn’t come for free,” professor Baxter warned.

“You have to put energy in to get hydrogen out – and in some cases more than half the energy goes in to get less than half out.”

He said that there was clearly a place for hydrogen in areas such as high temperature industrial processes, “but the first thing we should be doing is decarbonising the hydrogen production we have got at the moment.”

The UK produces around one million tonnes of hydrogen a year and most of it is used as ammonia in fertilisers.

Currently nine tonnes of CO2 is produced as waste to get just one tonne of hydrogen. “That should be the first aspect that is tackled,” he said.

What follows from this analysis is that busses running on brown hydrogen [hydrogen produced by burning fossil fuels] are more contaminating than conventional fossil fuel engines.

A similar carbon calculation can be made when looking at electric vehicles accessing free electricity that has mainly been produced by burning diesel in Lerwick’s power station.

Quoting the European integrated energy strategy he said that the top priority in moving towards net zero should be to use less energy by becoming more energy efficient followed by electrification.

Only where this is not a feasible option, such as in heavy industry, hydrogen as a fuel could become a viable solution, although how these large amounts of hydrogen can be stored and transported economically are not known, Baxter said.

With regards to the SIC and the islands’ massive fuel poverty issue, Baxter said a sizeable insulation programme of domestic properties could have an immediate impact.

“If the council were to go down the route of insulating domestic properties and installing heat pumps, you could reduce the fuel demand by 70 per cent, meaning you are using 30 per cent of fuel in electricity – that is delivering on fuel poverty in a very material way,” he said.

“It needs capital investment to the fabric of the house and into a heat pump, but if you look to reduce energy bills then that would be a very significant route, in my opinion.”

Council leader Steven Coutts said the need for change was absolutely clear and doing nothing in the face of the climate crisis was not an option.

“The failure to support the energy transition would have real significant negative impact on our community,” the councillor said.

“It is absolutely clear from industry the importance of this transition and the need to change. The loss of employment around Sullom Voe over recent years lays this out starkly.”