During a recent visit to the USA the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon gave a speech at the Brooking Institute in which she expressed extensive support for the proposition that hydrogen will be an essential part of the move away from fossil fuels.
In fact Ms Sturgeon said Scotland is “working to position ourselves as a hydrogen centre of excellence” and “to become the most reliable and lowest-cost green hydrogen producer in Europe”
The First Minister also repeated that the aim was to have the capacity, by 2030, to create 5 GW of hydrogen production capacity and added that the ambition for 2045 is to have the capacity to produce some 25 GW of hydrogen, much of which will be exported.
This is all very laudable and being a strong proponent of hydrogen I have absolutely no problem in supporting these ambitions.
However, I haven’t a clue as to how we’re going to achieve any of these objectives in a manner that also achieves a “just transition” and, just for a change, maximises the industrial and economic benefit to Scotland and Scotland’s industry which, given our economic circumstances following Brexit, is absolutely essential.
Let me remind people that at this moment in time Scotland simply does not have the technology to produce hydrogen or to make use of it. In other words, we don’t manufacture electrolysers or fuel cells or hydrogen boilers or even the gas jets that you would use to convert your nice natural gas hob to run on hydrogen. We don’t even manufacture hydrogen storage units or compressors although I do know of a company that has developed a hydrogen flow meter which could – for example – be used in a hydrogen dispensing unit.
I’ll also remind people that our erstwhile economic development agency Scottish Enterprise told us last year that we shouldn’t manufacture electrolysers in Scotland because we’re only a “services and skills economy” and that we should entice a European OEM to set up a factory here.
Tell that to all those that are actually manufacturing stuff in Scotland and I think Scottish Enterprise might be surprised by the response. It was an outrageous and defeatist comment but also strategically inept.
So there are a couple of questions arising following the First Minister’s speech and they are a) what’s most likely to actually happen and b) what could happen if the Scottish Government, its agencies and the universities actually got their ducks into line and put some real effort – and money – into achieving those aims with Scottish industry at the forefront?
Well, as to what’s likely to happen then there are plenty of clues to that in the First Minister’s speech.
She said “Scotland’s potential is already being recognised by other countries. In the past year alone, we have signed memorandums of understanding with Denmark, and with Hamburg and North-Rhine Westphalia in Germany.”
Now both the Danes and the Germans have an existing electrolyser manufacturing capability so I’d be pretty sure that the civil service will be looking at this and thinking that there’s a route here to bringing in a shedload of tax without Scotland having to lift a finger. How? By facilitating the Danes or the Germans or any of the other numerous nations in Northern Europe that do have the capability to set up their own hydrogen production plants in Scotland. That’s most of them by the way.
Of course it will achieve very little for the “just transition” because it won’t create those long term, high skill, high value jobs that we so desperately need. We can only do that if we’re designing, developing and manufacturing the hardware but we seem to be suffering from ideological constipation as far as manufacturing anything hydrogen related goes and it’s hurting our economy.
For example, the Swedish state owned engineering company Vattenfall – using a grant from the UK government – plans to install a desalination unit and electrolyser on one of the wind turbines in Aberdeen bay in order to demonstrate offshore hydrogen production which is something the Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group ran a SWOT analysis on ten years ago!
It could change with a little vision. One way might be for the Scottish National Investment Bank to put up seed funding to set up a company to develop an electrolyser and recruit an international team to do it. There’s plenty of talent in this sector in Europe and N. America because many of their universities are already leaders in this technology.
The opportunity is massive and on our doorstep. The EU has announced a target of 10mt of domestic green hydrogen production and 10mt of renewable hydrogen imports by 2030. Current global green hydrogen production is less than 1mt. That’s a lot electrolyser capacity to fill.
We didn’t develop a meaningful wind energy technology manufacturing industry, we can’t afford to fail again with hydrogen.
Dick Winchester is a former subsea engineer and an adviser to the Scottish government on the energy transition.