Hydrogen economy could insulate Scotland from volatile oil price

Attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman last month caused fluctuations in oil price. (AP Photo/Tasnim News Agency)
Attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman last month caused fluctuations in oil price. (AP Photo/Tasnim News Agency)
Dick Winchester
Opinion by Dick Winchester

In the week or so before I sat down at my desk to write this column, four important and potentially linked events took place.

They were: The issuing of Scottish Enterprise’s latest master plan; the International Energy Agency report on the potential for hydrogen; the oil tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman; and the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) report on Scotland’s Energy Future.

All four of these need to be considered in terms of their influence on the others.
Scottish Enterprise – which, as I’ve said before, does have some very good people working for it – has abandoned its previous priority of supporting high-growth companies for achieving inclusive economic growth and creating a Scotland that is equal for all.

It now believes “economic success is not just about creating wealth, it’s about fuelling shared wealth and a sense of collective wellbeing and creating good jobs that treat people fairly”. They want “a dynamic, more innovative and progressive economy”.

My problem with such a philosophy is that it tends to dilute effort and that makes their main aim considerably more difficult to achieve. If you’re always looking over your shoulder, waiting for the equalities and wellbeing assessment team to determine your actions, then progress will be even worse than it was under the previous master plan.

It’s a strategy that guarantees achieving not very much, not very quickly. From an energy sector perspective, Scotland needs desperately to set industrial benefit targets arising from government policies.

When Holyrood declares a climate emergency and sets a legally binding target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 with Scotland becoming “carbon neutral” by 2040, we need a strategy on how we’ll achieve that while ensuring the country gains the maximum economic and industrial benefit. Given the urgency of the situation, I’m just not sure how that will fit in with Scottish Enterprise’s desire to satisfy these additional social democratic aims, which I believe are more long term and only likely to be fully achievable with wholesale economic reform.

The IEA report says it’s essential we quickly get on with rolling out hydrogen technologies across the entire energy sector.

It begins: “The time is right to tap into hydrogen’s potential to play a key role in a clean, secure and affordable energy future.”

It emphasises the versatility of hydrogen and confirms technologies already exist to allow us to produce, store, move and use hydrogen in a wide range of ways.

It can be used to power cars, trucks, ships and planes and has numerous industrial applications.

It is a good thing that an influential body such as the IEA recognises all this and is strongly promoting the idea that hydrogen must now be applied widely. This should encourage countries such as Scotland, which effectively has no meaningful hydrogen supply chain, to get its finger out and kick-start the process of building one.

It remains for me one of the world’s great mysteries that blessed with an allegedly world-class university base and a skilled workforce, Scotland is not already a major producer and exporter of hydrogen technologies.

For what it’s worth, I consider that to be a serious failing of Scottish Enterprise as our prime development agency. It simply doesn’t have a pro-active approach to economic development.

Now you’re wondering what about the attack on those tankers in the Gulf of Oman?

Well, the consequence of that was an oil price spike and in fact there was another when the US lost one of its drones to a ground-to-air missile strike.

Oil price fluctuations are an accepted part of the industry’s DNA. But they can, and have in the past, caused huge economic damage. Developing a hydrogen economy would insulate the country from the economic impact of events on the other side of the world, provided that our hydrogen was produced domestically.

I’m just staggered we’re doing nothing much about that. We need to think holistically, act fast and build an industry. That’s what provides high-value jobs. It doesn’t happen the other way round.

Dick Winchester is on the Scottish Government’s energy advisory board.

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