The UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) which advises the UK and devolved governments on emissions targets is commendably unafraid to speak truth to power. This recently included its recent observations on the increasingly pivotal role of hydrogen on the route to net-zero.

Last month it produced a report, Delivering a Reliable Decarbonised Power System, that highlighted the need for the electricity network to adopt energy storage more swiftly, concluding that the best current solution is hydrogen.

The CCC added a caveat however: that there is likely to be a shortfall of hydrogen production by 2035 and went as far as discussing the potential import to the UK of gas for blue hydrogen production, or of green hydrogen.

Caragh McWhirr believes this indicates we’re not on track to produce enough domestic hydrogen to support the power systems we need to meet GHG (greenhouse gas) targets, and that we’re also at risk of missing out on a huge export, skills and jobs opportunity by not moving fast enough.

McWhirr is Head of Hydrogen Strategy at Xodus Group, an Aberdeen-headquartered consultancy with offices across the UK, Australia, Japan, Qatar, the UAE and the US and leads its Hydrogen Xcellence Hub.

She says that the rapidly changing energy landscape has seen many governments firmly place hydrogen at the heart of their energy transition strategies – and that along with other clean fuel sources being developed, hydrogen is a suitable power source for industries such as shipping and heavy land-based transportation, as well as a crucial component of electrical power systems with deep penetration of renewables.

The Scottish Government has developed several scenarios to support the prospective £25billion contribution hydrogen could bring to the Scottish economy by 2045 – plus up to 300,000 jobs. And importantly, hydrogen production, use and storage could improve energy security, reducing reliance on energy imports have had adverse effects since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Meanwhile, a brief science class catch up: The UK and Scottish Governments have a twin track approach to hydrogen, both electrolytic green hydrogen and Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS) enabled blue hydrogen which is low carbon, as the majority of emissions are not dispersed in the atmosphere. It’s envisaged that green hydrogen production from renewables, especially wind power, will lead to the eventual phasing out of blue hydrogen.

Which leaves Scotland in an advantageous position. “Our leading place in the offshore wind sector has given the country a significant jump-start in initiating major green hydrogen production schemes and we’re already in a dominant position in developing that,” says McWhirr.

 A significant challenge remains: how to translate our strengths in leading-edge technology into commercially viable, investable projects.  “We know what the potential is, but results must be delivered and we need the evidence to convince many developers that they can get their energy to market.

“They may have to decide whether that means electricity or hydrogen and currently we cannot export enough green electrons from a North Sea hub to the rest of the UK and Europe,” she says. 

Scaling up the infrastructure and technology necessary to store and transport hydrogen for mainstream usage will require huge financial investment and she believes stronger incentives are needed, like those available in the US. “That’s where we have seen a lot of electrolyser manufacture for example, and we need to become more competitive in Scotland if we want to develop those jobs.”

McWhirr, however, is no stranger to identifying solutions to such challenges. A process development engineer, she was previously Xodus’s first innovation manager, developing strategy, identifying opportunities, and generating and screening ideas while managing their development until they could deliver returns.

She concedes that opening the export market will be tricky as transport infrastructure will involve not one but several individual projects. “We are seeing industry collaboration to address these challenges, with the Net Zero Technology Centre’s Scottish Government and Industry funded Hydrogen Backbone and Energy Hubs projects being leading examples, and Xodus has been delighted to be involved in both.” McWhirr is also seconded one day a week into the Net Zero Technology Centre team.

“There’s perhaps a need for government to enable that infrastructure while in terms of people and employment, there’s a need for skills – and there’s a huge amount of directly transferable knowledge in the oil and gas sector,” she says, pointing out that while the materials and process used may be different, skills needed for designing and installing export pipelines will be the same as they are in the offshore oil and gas industry. 

Manufacturing electrolysers however is a new, different type of skill. “It makes sense to have that capability relatively close to where you’re going to install or build and while you can import equipment, in order to be truly competitive, there needs to be some support to enable our industry to capture those jobs.”

Another challenge is accomplishing this during an economic downturn in which many companies are increasingly looking to cut costs but McWhirr says it’s vital for this sector of the renewable energy industry to scale up to the Gigawatt (GW) scale to exploit the major export opportunities that exist.

“Costs will come down as that happens, but it hasn’t happened yet. These large-scale hydrogen production facilities are a little like offshore wind – there’s a significant learning curve to be overcome.”

Hydrogen, she says, is across many different parts of Xodus and in every geographic area. The company is involved in areas that range from managing a database containing details of more than 1000 hydrogen projects across the world to helping with the development of the vital supply chains that integrate production systems with their end-users.

Xodus is currently developing its own hydrogen production project MercurHy, a green hydrogen project based in Western Australia which will scale up to 1,000 megawatts (MW) of electrolyser capacity and which is providing a strong economic development opportunity for the region by helping to unlock and decarbonise new industries.

Hydrogen, she adds is just part of the energy mix necessary to address a global crisis, just one of the many solutions that will be a part of the energy transition and not the single ‘silver bullet’ – but as other markets have no better alternative, she believes there’s an urgent imperative to move faster to service that need.

“At Xodus we can take real ownership of such projects – which is very empowering, both for our own people and the renewables industry.”