“Nobody is going to touch blue hydrogen with a barge pole at current gas prices,” said Lord Adair Turner, chairman of the Energy Transitions Commission.
Blue hydrogen has a role to play, provided the CO2 capture rate is above 95pc and as long as the imported gas is methane-certified (Russian gas is awful). But the window is narrowing, and the risk of stranded assets is rising. Lord Turner said green hydrogen will ultimately sweep the board almost everywhere on pure cost.
Europe is going all out for green – bar the Netherlands – and its latest target of 200 gigawatts from electrolysers dwarfs Britain’s ambition. But such pietistic figures recall the Lisbon Agenda, which was supposed to turn the EU into the world’s technology hegemon within ten years but never got beyond the drawing board.
Europe does not have a sufficient pipeline of renewable projects to underpin this plan. It will have to import most of this hydrogen from a global supply that does not yet exist.
Germany has invoked “ecological patriotism” in its proposals this week, aiming to double the renewable share of power to 80pc by 2030, with 30 gigawatts of offshore wind and a colossal 115 gigawatts of onshore wind. It is activating a national security law to fast-track planning consent.
While the intent is bold, the Energiewende never yet lived up to promises. It is a racing certainty that this latest escalation will also fall far short.
The concern for Britain is not that fossils will make a comeback. The competitive threat will come from cheaper green hydrogen produced in the vast open spaces of Australia, Saudi Arabia, north Africa, Patagonia or wherever conditions offer what amounts to free energy.
Australian tycoon Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest is raising funds for a 200 gigawatt domain of solar and wind in the Pilbara area of Western Australia, with the long-term aim of 1,000 gigawatts in global projects (18 times the entire Australian grid). He has just signed a deal with Germany’s E.ON to supply up to 5m tonnes of green hydrogen a year by 2030.
CWP Global plans jumbo renewable hubs in Patagonia and the Sahara, each equivalent in energy scale to Saudi Arabia, but is instead making clean ammonia for oceanic shipment.
The Italian infrastructure group SNAM aims to electrolyse solar power on site and at grand scale in Egypt, sending green hydrogen directly to Europe though its nexus of pipelines. Outgoing chief executive Marco Alvera told me that North Sea wind could never hope to compete with this. The Sahara will wipe the floor eventually.
With that caveat, I nevertheless applaud the Government’s plan. Industrial renewal creates its own virtuous circle, and continental Europe is going to need copious imports of clean energy for a long time. Whether ministers will actually deliver what they promise is another matter.