War in Ukraine boosts UK green hydrogen industry

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Professor Kevin Kendall pulls into the only green hydrogen refueling station in Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city, and fills his car with clean gas.

Green hydrogen is in the spotlight as governments seek to cut carbon emissions in times of high temperatures, and to preserve energy supplies affected by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a major oil and gas producer.

But the “hydrogen economy” has not quite caught on pending adoption by high-polluting sectors such as steel and aviation.

For Kendall, being an early adopter of green hydrogen means he doesn’t have to stand in line to refuel his vehicle.

“There is very little green hydrogen being produced in the UK at the moment,” this chemical engineering professor told AFP. “Now it has to move forward.”

In Birmingham, central England, refueling Kendall’s Toyota Mirai with green hydrogen costs about 50 pounds ($61), half that of a similar diesel car after the war in Ukraine sent the price of fossil fuels skyrocketing.

Despite the price benefit, the United Kingdom has only a dozen hydrogen refueling stations.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element on earth, but it is trapped in water and hydrocarbons such as natural gas, making it “difficult to produce,” according to Michaela Kendall, Kevin’s daughter.

Together they founded Adelan, a small company that makes fuel cells similar to the metal-encased devices used to power their vehicle.

Most attractive

Adelan is the longest-running manufacturer of fuel cells in the UK and also works with liquefied petroleum gas. The company also offers hydrogen car rental.

“Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine the economics of green hydrogen has become more attractive,” Minh Khoi Le, head of hydrogen research at Rystad Energy, told AFP.

“Coupled with many incentives in the second half of 2022 globally, green hydrogen seems to satisfy the energy system’s trilemma: energy security, affordability and sustainability,” he added.

As a consequence of the war, the European Union (EU) is seeking to increase its gas reserves by cutting consumption by 15% while increasing its stock of green hydrogen obtained from water by electrolysis.

This contrasts with the more readily available blue hydrogen, which environmentalists reject as coming from natural gas through a process that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Million-dollar investment

At Adelan’s Birmingham workshop, a brick structure surrounded by houses, staff test so-called solid oxide fuel cells that replace diesel generators.

Michaela Kendall, president of the company, says she expects “hydrogen use to really increase, but it will take time.”

“Hydrocarbons will continue to be used for the foreseeable future,” she predicted, “because the hydrogen economy hasn’t really evolved, it’s at an early stage.”

The UK government has said a £9 billion investment is needed to “make hydrogen a cornerstone of the UK’s green future” as it seeks to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century.

In Birmingham the plan is to have 10 refueling stations in the next few years with the arrival of 120 hydrogen buses by 2023. Other British cities, such as Aberdeen in Scotland, are following suit.

However, “Los Angeles alone has been reasonably successful with about 9,000 hydrogen vehicles and 40 hydrogen stations,” Kevin notes. “That’s what we’d like for Birmingham.”

Electric cars

The Toyota, which looks like an ordinary vehicle, is powered by electricity generated by green hydrogen combined with oxygen in a fuel cell.

The only emission from the vehicle, with a 640 km (400 mile) range, is water vapor.

Adelan’s solid oxide fuel cells, so called because their electrolyte is ceramic, is an “electrical device” that generates power for batteries.

But the lack of hydrogen infrastructure means that drivers hoping for a greener alternative to oil or diesel would still purchase electric vehicles.

Despite the long charging period for electric car batteries and the increase this year in the price of electricity, Britons are quickly discarding their polluting vehicles before the UK bans the sale of new diesel and gasoline cars in 2030.

At the same time, oil giant BP recently unveiled plans to produce green hydrogen in the UK.

Nedim Husomanovic

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