‘Fixation on electricity’ is short-circuiting Britain’s hydrogen power rollout

Britain is significantly behind its European rivals in rolling out hydrogen power because ministers and officials are “fixated” on electricity replacing fossil fuels, a leading businessman and Tory donor warned on Saturday.

Lord Bamford, the chairman of JCB, the construction machinery manufacturer, accused Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, of ignoring “alternatives to electric power” for vehicles and machinery, as he warned that batteries would be completely inadequate to fuel large vehicles spending six to eight-hour shifts on building sites and in fields.

The Conservative peer, who supported Boris Johnson’s leadership bid, spoke out after the Department for Transport announced that half of all new cars would have to have “zero emissions” by 2028. But experts have warned that the increase in battery-operated cars would significantly outpace the provision of charging points, and the ability of the National Grid to cope with the rise in electricity required by the switch.

Mr Johnson has pledged to make Britain the “Qatar of hydrogen”. But, last year, The Sunday Telegraph revealed concerns among some government figures that the ambition risked being derailed by resistance in Whitehall. Civil servants were said to be opposed to so-called “blue” hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Lord Bamford said it was a “great thing” that the Government’s energy security strategy, published last week, committed to ramping up hydrogen production in the UK, but warned that the apparent shift was being reflected in the approach of ministers and civil servants. 

Mr Shapps is “refusing to see me” to discuss the issue, he said.

‘Practical future fuel’

Engineers at JCB’s engine factory in Derbyshire have developed a hydrogen motor for large construction and agricultural vehicles, a prototype of which was demonstrated by the Prime Minister at an event in London last year. 

While batteries are “a very expensive commodity”, which would cost about five times the amount of a JCB engine, the hydrogen combustion engines being developed by the firm would not be “inflationary”.

Lord Bamford, whose firm has given more than £2.5 million to the Conservatives in the last three years, added: “Just have a look at what France and Germany are doing. In Germany, I think they’ve got 130 filling stations already dispensing hydrogen. They’re spending billions on hydrogen. This isn’t just because of Ukraine. They were doing this months ago. They’re all very much looking at this as a future of future fuel and a very practical future fuel. And I think we just need to be. Not exclusively, but we need to not have batteries as the exclusive way of doing it.”

He added: “Most of our machinery, anything over two and a half tonnes, is probably doing a full day’s shift, which could be six hours or eight hours. So a battery doesn’t lend itself to that sort of thing because they can’t keep going. And you can’t keep recharging, particularly not in construction sites or in the middle of a field.”

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