UK Hydrogen Economy

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:50 pm on 17th December 2020.

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Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley 3:50 pm, 17th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate Alexander Stafford on securing the debate and on his considerable enthusiasm and the detail with which he presented it. I think we all agree that hydrogen has considerable potential, but at present that is exactly what it is. I do not mean that in the way that the electricity industry talks about nuclear fusion—nuclear fusion is the future and always will be. I mean it as a call to action, so that we explore the production and utilisation of hydrogen at pace. One benefit of covid has been to demonstrate how, without cutting corners, we can evaluate systems and roll them out. We, particularly Whitehall, need to learn from that.

My hon. Friend Christian Matheson slightly chided me to say that we were going off topic, but given the way that the Government work, it is absolutely crucial that we get to the heart of this and change the processes within government, otherwise we will find it very difficult to survive in this future world. Key to this is the civil service’s addiction to process, with extended timescales and time not being a factor. That is true under Governments of all parties. It is enormously important that Parliament relentlessly holds it to account to get things moving.

It could be argued that both Brexit and covid enable and also force the Government to change. That means that we are compressing processes but also, and equally importantly, paralleling them: trying different approaches, seeing what works, and seeing what does not work and shutting that down.

To start with transport, buses and trains are a considerable component of the hydrogen economy and contribute to clean air, particularly in urban areas—by definition—but an important issue is where they are made. Up until now, the Government have been indifferent to where they are manufactured. We have the capacity in Ballymena, Falkirk and Leeds to produce the buses, but what those facilities need, of course, is a market. They need to get on the manufacturing learning curve. The operators need to get the operational experience and find out what the issues and problems are. There needs to be continuing feedback between operators and manufacturers, and that will of course enable us to secure the export markets that have been mentioned.

It might be that, in some conditions, batteries will prove to be better. We need to test that out and assess what will work. We need to learn the lessons that have been mentioned before about where we missed out on batteries and allowed that work to go abroad. We have the largest installation of wind farms in Europe, yet so much is manufactured abroad. Governments, including devolved Administrations, have not focused on that enough.

On domestic heating, nobody mentioned that town gas is composed of a substantial percentage of hydrogen. It might be a much better answer, as was mentioned, than heat pumps for flats and terraced properties, which is a big issue in moving to alternative form of heating.

Also, we need to look at how the production of hydrogen will take place. Let us be realistic. If we are going to roll out the utilisation of hydrogen, some of that initially, but hopefully very shortly, will need to come from hydrocarbon sources. That might be dealt with by carbon capture, but I sometimes think that that is the easy answer that people trot out to deal with that. We need to move much more towards green sources of hydrogen, and we therefore need to look at the institutional barriers. It is truly extraordinary that in the first two months of this year, National Grid paid wind farm operators £72 million to not run their wind farms. That is absurd, and it has been going on for a decade.