Usually at this time of year with Parliaments in recess the news is a little thin on the ground so journalists, broadcasters and columnists like me are required to exercise our imagination a little more. Some turn to creating conspiracy theories. I am going to provide you with some ammunition so you can create your own.
If you read my columns you will have learnt at least two things about me. Firstly, I support Scottish independence. Secondly, I am a firm believer in the use of hydrogen for pretty much everything and consider that, particularly for Scotland, it is the ideal drop-in replacement for hydrocarbon fuels for all transport as well as domestic and industrial heat.
The opposition to this idea comes mainly from those quoting production efficiency issues, which is something that the vast majority of the public don’t understand or couldn’t care less about. Their concerns are more related to cost and convenience. The US Department of Energy has created a so-called “Earthshot” project to bring the cost of green hydrogen by 80% to $1 per kg in 10 years. Given the US’s historic success in achieving these sorts of ambitions then the efficiency argument becomes irrelevant for all but the most ardent hydrogen haters.
However, the opposition to the use of hydrogen remains very vocal and I’ve been trying to work out why.
As some will be aware major oil and gas companies have been accused of using their position to lobby governments to dissuade them from supporting climate change legislation. An ExxonMobil lobbyist was recently caught on camera explaining how the US supermajor was doing exactly that.
That report didn’t mention any other major oil company but I think it would be naive to assume that at least some of them aren’t involved in similar escapades. In the UK there’s already an argument that oil and gas can play a part in decarbonising the economy. It’s one I don’t wholly disagree with. Their bank balances and spending power could certainly be directed towards building net zero supply chains but, of course, that’s not what they’re doing.
They’re mainly investing in cleaning up their own acts by decarbonising hydrocarbon production, which must be the most ludicrous piece of “greenwash” ever conceived. Some are doing things like investing in battery charging networks for electric vehicles. Sounds green until you understand that – more often than not – it’s natural gas which is used to generate that electricity.
There are exceptions of course and Equinor is one of them. I genuinely believe they are using their hydrocarbon production to help fund the development of their renewables business. But then they’re a majority state owned company and that makes a huge difference when it comes to designing and implementing their overall strategy. To be fair, Shell’s huge electrolyser project in Germany is also a welcome development.
But back to the electrification versus hydrogen discussion.
The Ferret recently published an article claiming that the owners of a third of all wind farms in Scotland have links to tax havens. It also found that some 39 of the 50 biggest Scottish wind farms are not owned in Scotland but by companies in Norway, Spain, Germany, France, China and elsewhere. Whilst many electricity supply companies are also overseas-owned, some also appear to belong to financial sector organisations. Even the ownership of the National Grid includes overseas investment companies.
I find it quite disturbing that something as important as the provision of low-carbon energy is being seen as a way of avoiding paying tax in the country where the wealth was acquired.
Perhaps if these companies were also contributing to the development of wind turbines or other manufacturing in Scotland I might take a kinder view, but they’re not. Shareholders’ interests take precedent.
I’m beginning to wonder to what extent some companies are involved in efforts to ensure they meet with little competition from other energy sources like hydrogen. What the electricity industry wants most of all is for us to use more electricity, whether it’s in our interest or not.
The lack of progress in rolling out hydrogen stations to support the sale of fuel cell electric vehicles has to be down to something. Is the electricity supply sector exerting pressure to ensure hydrogen never gains a foothold in the UK simply for selfish purposes?
To me it seems quite plausible because not using hydrogen is simply illogical. But you need to make up your own minds. I’m only here to sow seeds of doubt and unrest and get you thinking.
Dick Winchester is a member of the Scottish Government’s oil and gas and energy transition strategic leadership group.