The UK government needs to take key policy decisions to kickstart investment in hydrogen and lay out how it plans to have 10GW of hydrogen production capacity by 2030, according to the country’s first government-appointed hydrogen champion. In her report, Jane Toogood calls for industry and government to work together to build a hydrogen economy with a UK skills base and supply chains. The report comes just ahead of the government’s revised net zero strategy, expected this week.

After long delays in launching competitions for hydrogen produced by electrolysis and progressing blue hydrogen projects in the first industrial carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) clusters that were announced over 18 months ago, global investment in hydrogen is being drawn elsewhere. The US is offering significant incentives for hydrogen production and the EU is boosting investment too, while developing an EU-wide plan for hydrogen infrastructure.

Developing transport and storage infrastructure is going to be critical, with excess renewables in Scotland and other regions used to produce hydrogen which can be stored and brought to centres of demand further south. Toogood, chief executive of Johnson Matthey’s catalyst technologies business, wants industry and government to work ‘more closely together’ to develop an overarching plan.

She wants to see the development of ‘world scale’ green hydrogen projects of around 100MW – that’s more than an order of magnitude greater than today’s projects – that will also be needed to develop supply chains. Industry, she says, should work closely with government to identify strengths and formulate a supply chain strategy to build on them, making voluntary commitments to deliver UK content.

‘It needs to be an intelligent use of supply chains – looking where we can really add value and set ourselves up for the future,’ says Chris Manson-Whitton, chief executive of Progressive Energy, a partner in the Hynet industrial decarbonisation cluster. ‘There may be times where it may not always be exactly the cheapest opportunity to go UK but then recognising the longer term value creation in [gross value added] terms to the UK by building those skills and content.’

Toogood points to precious metals being a constraint for electrolyser production, while at the same time, the UK has strong precious metals recycling capabilities that could be built on. She wants to see dedicated industry and government work groups to tackle gaps in resources. There are many voluntary groupings of hydrogen experts, but ‘she’s talking about more formalised collaborations, which have very measurable objectives and timelines. So public–private partnerships [and] secondment of experts – a good example was the vaccine task force set up during the Covid pandemic,’ says Nilay Shah, who heads up the department of chemical engineering at Imperial College London. ‘If you can put together some working groups, we can move very quickly.’

Safety is one such gap to be tackled, suggests Jon Constable, at green hydrogen and renewables developer, Protium. ‘You can look at many instances in the UK of companies that have been successfully producing hydrogen, albeit not green hydrogen, in refinery scale operations, and being able to lean on that pre-existing industry knowledge can inform government policy.’

The hydrogen economy will also depend on skills investment. Industry, government and academia need to work together on the upskilling and training needed. Constable would welcome targeted initiatives on industry ‘pinch points’, especially in engineering skills.

‘We need to think about the skills all the way from the university level … to industrial training,’ adds Shah. ‘The best thing to do is see what can we learn from the natural gas industry – what translates over in terms of the range of skills that are needed and the levels of those skills.’