The UK stands at a crossroads moment, with two potential hydrogen paths ahead.
One route leads to the UK becoming a true leader in a future $2.5tr economy, whilst creating and sustaining hundreds of thousands of green jobs, in all parts of the country, for decades to come.
The other route will see the UK become a mid-league player. We’ll be part of the mix, but we won’t achieve the game-changing levels of regional economic growth and job creation. Instead we’ll be reliant on importing much of the technology and skills.
The route we choose will take decades to travel, but it will mostly be determined by what decisions are made within the next six months.
This is because the global hydrogen race has already started. Countries across the world are already pumping billions into their domestic hydrogen markets. Germany, France, Portugal, the EU, Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, and many others all believe they have world-leading potential, and they have fired their own starting guns before the UK.
But whilst the UK Government has been slow out of the starting blocks, we can still pull far ahead. Many of Usain Bolt’s famous Olympic victories, where he was metres ahead by the finish line, saw him towards the back of the pack after the first 10 metres. This is where the UK is now.
For us to roar ahead of the pack like Bolt, the UK Government must choose the most ambitious and creative route. Number 10 is fond of moonshot ideas, so why not attempt some hydrogen moonshots?
The landscape is fertile for such action. Politically, the UK is ready to act – the Prime Minister has publicly stated his belief in hydrogen, and pledged that the UK will ‘invest massively’ in it.
Over the summer, senior members of the Cabinet including the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, and Wales Secretary Simon Hart all visited hydrogen businesses to learn more about the UK’s hydrogen opportunity from the frontline. And in Parliament, through the Hydrogen Strategy Now campaign (for transparency, the campaign is led by Beyond2050), a network of 60 MPs and Peers are consistently, positively, and proactively making the case for hydrogen.
Besides Covid and Brexit, hydrogen is now one of the most frequently mentioned issues in Parliament.
However, the window of opportunity to capitalise on this political support and industry ambition is just six short months. By the end of Spring 2021, the UK Government will have published its Transport Decarbonisation Plan, Energy White Paper, and Hydrogen Strategy, and will be months away from hosting COP26. Each one of these represents a moment to spark game-changing action, and taken collectively they can be a major leap forward into a hydrogen future, more powerful than any policy or strategy that has so far emerged from other governments across the world.
During the virtual Conservative Party conference, Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi said that the UK ‘would not miss’ its opportunity to be a world-leader on hydrogen. To achieve this, the Government must work collaboratively across all relevant departments (including No10, Treasury, BEIS, DfT, DEFRA, MHCLG, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too), and in partnership with industry to out-manoeuvre and out-wit the international competition.
As a practical example, the Transport Decarbonisation Plan is a Department for Transport (DfT)-led policy, whereas the Energy White Paper and Hydrogen Strategy are led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). There is little rationale for BEIS to set big targets for the production of hydrogen over the next five-ten years, if the DfT isn’t putting in place the building blocks for demand from hydrogen mobility, as we build towards converting the gas grid.
Cross-government collaboration to efficiently stimulate supply and demand must therefore be at the heart of the Government’s plan. If Ministers get this right, by the time of the next election in 2024, the UK’s hydrogen economy could be well and truly booming, with thousands of hydrogen buses and cars, a few dozen hydrogen trains and a 20% hydrogen blend in sections of the grid – all using UK-made technology.
A party leader may even be able to traverse the country in a hydrogen-powered battle bus or via a hydrogen-powered plane.
These next six months are therefore critical, as well as hugely exciting. The time for the UK Government to act is now, and it has the ideal policy opportunities to do so. We, on the outside of government, must continue to do what we can to support ministers and their officials to have the confidence and clarity to commit the country to the hydrogen route forward we all want to travel along together.