If Boris Johnson puts the resources into getting Britain’s hydrogen economy going, he will have achieved something truly Churchillian
It is an often overlooked achievement of Clement Attlee’s postwar Labour government that – alongside forming the NHS – it successfully pioneered the development of Britain’s atomic bomb.
In a speech heralding the hydrogen bomb age in 1955, Winston Churchill paid tribute to Attlee’s role but then called for Britain to develop its own H-Bomb, which it did in 1957.
More than six decades later, it’s time for the incumbent prime minister, Boris Johnson – a man as fond of Churchill as anyone can be – to herald a new hydrogen age altogether.
Already the country is committed to an electrified future. With a coastline (islands included) 19,500 miles long, the UK has the potential to be the ‘Saudi Arabia of renewables’. And it is well on the way to achieving that objective, with 34 offshore windfarms generating 10 per cent of the country’s electricity needs. But there’s a problem. Electricity has limitations. While you can electrify trains – many of our high-speed services are already electric – the limits of battery technology make it unworkable for lorries and buses.
Industrialist Jo Bamford tells Spear’s that an electric double-decker bus requires 3.5 tonnes of battery and only operates for 60 per cent of the range of a conventional bus. It then needs four and a half hours to charge.
The limitations of batteries become more apparent when you look at road haulage, now one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Britain. The good news is that there is a solution.
Derided by Elon Musk as ‘fool cells’, hydrogen ‘fuel cells’ could actually save us from fossil-fuelled doom. Bamford says his hydrogen bus – made by Wrightbus in Northern Ireland, a company he bought last year – has the same range as the diesel equivalent and takes just seven minutes to refill.
Crucially, he says he can also make hydrogen for the same cost as diesel. Both the range issue and cost are vital.
Recently the Economist reported: ‘Hydrogen compressed to 700 atmospheres contains between two and five times more usable energy per litre than a lithium-ion battery.’ It’s this energy density – and portability – that has got people thinking. Hyundai, for instance, already makes a hydrogen lorry, and Daimler has teamed up with Volvo to look into it. (Both Hyundai and Toyota have been investing in hydrogen for cars, too.)
As well as being the solution for buses, lorries and trains (where electrification isn’t an option), hydrogen is also viable for ferries and maritime traffic.
On a global scale, shipping is as polluting as aviation, each contributing around 2.5 per cent of CO2 emissions. Finally, for a nation that is looking to quadruple offshore wind capacity by 2030, the UK desperately needs to find a way to store surplus power generated at night or in low-use periods.
If, in these moments, the otherwise wasted electricity were to be used to generate green hydrogen, then it could be fed back into the system to power buses and lorries, or be held in reserve for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
Not for nothing did the Energy Transitions Commission, a leading international thinktank chaired by Lord Turner, pronounce in a September report, Making Mission Possible: Delivering a Net-Zero Economy, that the key to getting to net carbon zero ‘is a massive clean electrifi cation and the development of the hydrogen economy’. Goldman Sachs estimates that green hydrogen will be worth $11.7 trillion to the world economy by 2050.
Britain should claim a slice of the action and build a world-leading position in the industry – for the good of its own national interest, but also for the benefit of the planet.
Hydrogen, therefore, should be at the centre of Mr Johnson’s soon-to-be-announced plan for a ‘green industrial revolution’ for Britain.
If he does put the resources into getting Britain’s hydrogen economy going, he will have achieved something truly Churchillian. Indeed, it might even earn him a statue.
This is the leader from the latest edition of Spear’s magazine. Click here to buy and subscribe.