I hope that I am not turning into another conspiracy theorist but such is the world as I see it. The current system is trying to keep itself going in an era that requires a completely new way of thinking and doing things which is "using as little as possible of the earth's resources rather than squandering all we can to promote economic growth" so that a few people can accumulate untold riches at the expense of the masses.
Somewhere in rural Northumberland, jutting out of the landscape, are three unassuming terraced houses.
Surrounded by little more than muddy fields, they look strangely isolated and out of place – as if they’ve been dropped into the countryside at random.
They weren’t built for their aesthetics. And they’re certainly not exactly the kind of homes you’ll see on Escape to the Country, either.
But these modest buildings are part of a pioneering effort to revamp Britain’s energy network.
That’s because these homes are the latest development in Britain’s green energy revolution.
Built by a coalition of companies, led by North Gas Networks, the demonstration houses are the first in the UK to be heated with hydrogen.
As an energy source, hydrogen is a game-changer.
It can produce electricity while producing just one emission in the process – water.
Existing natural gas infrastructure can be upgraded to supply hydrogen to homes and industrial plants, so an entire new network won’t be needed.
And given that heating homes in the UK makes up around 20% of the country’s carbon emissions, hydrogen heating may well be the future.
Its uses aren’t limited to heating houses either. Some experts believe it could also be used to fuel ships, cars and buses.
Wait a minute – isn’t hydrogen already produced all over the world?
It is. And plenty of it, too.
Over 50 million tonnes of hydrogen are produced every year worldwide. Most of its uses aren’t exactly glamorous – its main uses are in oil refining and fertiliser production.
But it’s worth making a distinction at this point. All hydrogen is the same – but it’s not all produced in the same way.
There are generally three types of the hydrogen that you’ll see mentioned: grey, blue, and green.
Grey hydrogen is made using fossil fuels, so it’s often a by-product of other industrial processes.
Blue hydrogen is a halfway house between grey and green – it’s gathered when CO2 released in the process of grey hydrogen production is captured and stored.
And then there’s green hydrogen or “renewable hydrogen” – the stuff with the most minimal impact on the environment. That’s because it’s produced with sustainable energy. In short, it’s produced through electrolysis – when water is split into oxygen and hydrogen using green electricity.
So when politicians and business leaders are going on about hydrogen, they generally mean green hydrogen.
What’s the catch, then?
Cost, for a start. Producing green hydrogen isn’t cheap.
That’s why governments and companies alike are throwing money at the sector.
Last year, a consortium of companies made up of big energy players which included ACWA Power, CWP Renewables and Orsted signed up to a UN programme aimed at pushing the price below $2 per kilo – the supposed tipping point at which green hydrogen will become a feasible replacement for other fuels.
There’s a long list of other companies hoping to take advantage of the upcoming sea change in the energy industry: Cummins, an industrials company which recently purchased a large hydrogen fuel cell producer; Bloom Energy, which is helping to integrate green hydrogen into energy grids; and Air Products & Chemicals, which is building a 4GW hydrogen plant in Saudi Arabia.
Even Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the Japanese conglomerate, has stated its intention to pivot towards hydrogen power – amongst other forms of energy production – in order to cut its carbon emissions and grow its revenues generated from green energy by six times between 2023 and 2030.
It’s no surprise then that green hydrogen production costs are expected to tumble this decade.
Politicians around the world are increasingly pointing to green hydrogen as a vital cog in their decarbonisation plans.
Boris Johnson earmarked half-a-billion pounds to spend on green hydrogen production in November last year. President-elect Joe Biden views hydrogen as the shortcut to delivering clean electricity across the US. And the EU has set out ambitious plans to ramp up energy hydrogen production by the end of the decade.
The other bottleneck is storage.
Compared with, say, marine fuel, hydrogen isn’t very dense. That is, it takes up a lot more space to store.
Its molecule is also smaller than that of natural gas, so some infrastructure will need to be upgraded and strengthened in order for hydrogen to be used safely.
According to a report from BloombergNEF, the cost of building enough storage to maintain the current level of energy security for the US would be an eye-watering £637 billion.
That’s the kind of price tag that only one type of institution can shoulder.
Government support will make or break green hydrogen production
Currently, the sector faces a “chicken-and-egg” problem. Why produce green hydrogen when there isn’t infrastructure to support it? But why produce infrastructure to support green hydrogen when there’s not much being produced?
Only sustained public spending can keep industry until it becomes commercially viable.
So for their sake, let’s hope the government doesn’t pull the plug.