Cleaner fuels essential part of transition as UK plots net zero journey


The government has unveiled its landmark Net Zero Strategy, where cleaner fuels, such as hydrogen, have been highlighted as essential to successfully delivering the 2050 target.

Published on 19 October, the government pledged that with the UK already having cut greenhouse gas emissions by 44% since 1990, the economy-wide strategy is its long-term plan to “finish the job” and end the UK’s domestic contribution to man-made climate change by 2050. Through a range of measures to transition to a green and sustainable future, the strategy will secure 440,000 well-paid jobs and unlock £90bn in private investment by 2030, while putting the UK on course to reach net zero by mid-century.

It modelled a trio of illustrative net zero scenarios to explore potential energy and technology solutions in 2050, and found varying levels of electricity and low carbon hydrogen generation in each – both cited as among the key green technologies and energy carriers the UK will rely on, on its net zero journey, alongside CCUS and biomass.

Widespread electrification with deep decarbonisation of the electricity supply was explored through “high electrification”, with UK electricity generation reaching 690TWh and low carbon hydrogen production scaling to 240TWh in 2050. In contrast, low carbon hydrogen generation was found to reach 500TWh, meeting the majority of building heat demand, in “high resource”, which explored the impact of using it more extensively. In “high innovation”, meanwhile, the generation requirements of electricity and low carbon hydrogen were found to be 670TWh and 330TWh respectively.

While acknowledging uncertainties remain of just what the energy and technology mix will look like in 2050, it was still able to draw several broad conclusions to help shape an overall approach to net zero.

These include that extensive decarbonisation is needed across transport, buildings and industry, accounting for possible residual emissions in agriculture, aviation, waste and heavy industry, and that different technologies for each of these sectors can be accommodated, such as electric heat pumps or hydrogen for heating, meaning wide ranges of possible electricity and hydrogen demand remain plausible. It also noted the fact both electricity and hydrogen demand will grow significantly from today and must be produced with very low levels of emissions by 2050 as another key takeaway.

From these insights, it went on to develop a delivery pathway, broken down sector by sector, offering an indicative trajectory of the emissions reductions to meet targets up to the sixth carbon budget (CB6), ending in 2037, which would include the UK’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), and put the country on course to reach net zero.

Indicative emissions reductions to meet UK carbon budgets and NDC
Source: BEIS

The pathway targets a fully decarbonised power system by 2035, subject to security of supply, made up of abundant, cheap renewables, cutting edge new nuclear power stations and underpinned by flexibility, such as storage, gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS), and hydrogen. It further set out how clean fuels, such as hydrogen, have a crucial role to play, serving sectors where electrification is not a viable option.

The strategy sets out the government’s commitment to significantly reducing emissions from traditional oil and gas fuel supplies, while scaling up production of low carbon alternatives, such as hydrogen and biofuels. It highlighted how the current gas price spikes have underlined the need to move away from hydrocarbons “as quickly as possible”, but stressed the transition must protect jobs and investment, use existing infrastructure, maintain security of supply and minimise environmental impacts.

Low carbon hydrogen in particular was cited as having the potential to enable significant emissions savings through fuel switching across a range of end use sectors. Fuel supply currently accounted for 5% of UK emissions in 2019, with the government envisaging a reduction of 53-60% by 2035 from 2019 levels.

The Hydrogen Strategy had projected 7-20GW of production capacity could be needed in 2035, rising to 15-60GW in 2050, depending on developments across heat, industry, transport and power. The illustrative pathway in the Net Zero Strategy suggest the figure could be 10GW in 2035, assuming heat is electrified, rising to 17GW if hydrogen is used widely for heat.

Key commitments to help hydrogen realise its potential and clean up fuel supply include 5GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 and the establishment of the Industrial Decarbonisation and Hydrogen Revenue Support scheme to fund new hydrogen and industrial carbon capture business models. Up to £140mn will be provided to set up the scheme, including up to £100mn to award contracts of up to 250MW of electrolytic hydrogen production capacity in 2023, with further allocation in 2024.

It will also implement the £240mn Net Zero Hydrogen Fund, while finalising the Hydrogen Business Model and Low Carbon Hydrogen Standard in 2022; collaborate with the sector to develop a low carbon fuel strategy for transport, for publication in 2022; work with stakeholders to address barriers to electrification for oil and gas production by Q4 2022; and regulate the oil and gas sector in a way that minimises greenhouse gas emissions.

Indicative fuel supply emissions pathway to 2037
Source: BEIS analysis

There is also acknowledgement of a potential role for hydrogen in heat and buildings within the Net Zero Strategy. There is a commitment to establishing large-scale trials of hydrogen for heating to take decisions in 2026 on its role in decarbonising heating and consulting on a case for enabling, or requiring hydrogen-ready boilers and broader heating system efficiencies.

The Heat and Buildings Strategy was released on 19 October – the same day as the Net Zero Strategy – and a full write-up will be available on the website tomorrow.