Fuel cells can be key force in climate fight, strengthen hydrogen’s impact


With hydrogen essential to net zero, fuel cell technology can be highly complementary, storing cheap hydrogen and generating electricity on demand, a paper has set out.

On 14 September, the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (UK HFCA) published its latest position paper, making the case for fuel cell technology as a “forgotten force in the fight against climate change”. With efficiency an essential, though overlooked part of a pathway towards a cost effective energy transition, it set out how fuel cells can offer a range of opportunities to deliver efficient use of decarbonised fuels in a variety of applications. This would make the transition more affordable and, as a result, deliverable.

Fuel cells are highly complementary to hydrogen, strengthening its reach and impact. As the UK moves to a 100% renewable electricity system, intermittency will become a bigger challenge, increasing the need for more grid balancing services and energy storage, which is where affordable low carbon hydrogen could be a breakthrough in terms of storing electricity over time. Paired with fuel cells to generate power on demand in any location, this would support a move towards greater electrification of the energy system.

There is also potential to use them in buildings and homes in future, with UK HFCA stating hydrogen and fuel cells can help to reduce the substantial contribution of heat to carbon emissions in the UK. This would see hydrogen stored until needed, before being run through a fuel cell to create zero carbon heat and power. Efficiencies of “well over” 90% could be achievable in a combined heat and power fuel cell, it added.

As well as the advantages to the energy transition, there is also an economic opportunity to be had, with the report noting the global fuel cells market could be worth £9.7bn in five years. The UK has a world-leading electrochemical research base and a number of leading companies in low and high temperature fuel cell and electrolysis technology, making it well placed to capitalise on the opportunity, but lacks capability to develop technology at scale.

Therefore, to create a leading UK industry, the UK HFCA outlined two steps government must take to make it happen, beginning with supporting the scale up of the fuel cells industry in the UK. It recommended this takes the form of a challenge-led fund where government facilitates collaboration between industry and academia, suggesting a model similar to the Faraday Institute for battery technology.

Secondly, it called for government to implement policy levers to help the development of fuel cells in the UK, specifically recommending direct public procurement of fuel cell technology; establishing subsidy mechanisms to support generation of a fuel cell or support its consumption, with mechanisms to encourage UK content along the supply chain; committing to phase out fossil fuelled trucks; and reducing grants for bus operators running diesel vehicles.