Potential for a Hydrogen Village

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 24 May 2022.

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Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy) 11:00, 24 May 2022

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, when we get to the carbon capture element of the project, we will be joined together, because the Irish sea will play a major part in the storage of carbon emissions.

Let me return to the trial itself. There will always be some people who, for perfectly legitimate reasons, will not want to get involved, and one can imagine that, for some, the fear of something new will be too much. It is fair to say that no amount of persuasion will encourage them to participate, and it is important that if people cannot be persuaded to take part, they are not forced to do so. The old saying is, “One volunteer is worth 10 pressed men,” and it applies to hydrogen as much as to anything else. I think the number of those who do not want to take part will be small, but if the past couple of years have told us anything, it is that an element of compulsion will not make those with misgivings change their minds; indeed, it often has the opposite effect.

I think take-up will be significant, based on the early response, and if the trial proves a success, there will be a national change because approximately 23 million homes and businesses in the UK rely on natural gas for cooking and heating. To put that in context, that represents a quarter of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions, so we need to act on the whole of household infrastructure if we are to get to net zero. What better way to do that than an initiative that maximises support for UK jobs and enhances the principle of “make, buy and sell more in the UK”?

As much as that principle applies to anything, it applies to the 1.6 million boilers made in the UK each year, supporting jobs in places such as the north-west and the west midlands. Furthermore, a huge supply chain serves those manufacturers, and I am sure that building on that talent base is central to any levelling-up strategy the Government want to introduce. We also have tens of thousands of skilled gas engineers, which is why I welcome the support expressed by trade unions such as Unite and GMB whose members work in the sector and which support the move to hydrogen. I declare for the record my membership of both those trade unions.

UK boiler manufacturers truly are world leaders in the research and development of hydrogen-ready boilers. Critically, all have committed to sell hydrogen-ready boilers at the equivalent cost of a current gas-burning boiler. That commitment is key for households that are understandably concerned about the cost of converting to low carbon. We know, for example, that electric vehicles are substantially more expensive than traditional combustion-engine vehicles. That is one of the major barriers to consumer-led change, but we will not have to contend with it in this field.

I am aware that boiler manufacturers have written to the Prime Minister to confirm their commitment on that cost issue. Will the Minister say what consideration has been given to that commitment from boiler manufacturers to make in the UK and sell at the same cost as current natural gas boilers, which I hope he welcomes? What consideration has been given to comments by the trade unions on their view that it is not possible to achieve the large-scale workforce shift from boilers to heat pumps? Where is the hydrogen-ready boiler consultation? There was a commitment made to publish it last year.

Some people out there will say that we should not be doing this at all because it involves the wrong type of hydrogen, but the project has the potential to cut CO2 emissions by at least 80%, which is a pretty good start. It will not deliver us to the promised land of net zero, but it is an important—I would say probably inevitable—stepping-stone for getting us there.

The Climate Change Committee, which is the Government’s independent adviser on climate change, has recommended that significant volumes of blue hydrogen be produced by 2030 to help the UK to meet its climate targets, help industry to cut emissions quickly and ensure that there is a market for green hydrogen once it becomes cost competitive. The committee’s analysis found that blue hydrogen could save up to 85% of emissions compared with unabated use of fossil gas.

The committee has also concluded that blue hydrogen is the right first step to take because the technology available now will help emissions-intensive businesses that cannot electrify their processes to get on the road to reducing their emissions this decade. Critically, that will help to preserve jobs in the UK’s industrial heartlands and in my constituency as we target net zero further down the road. We want to get our industry powered and our homes heated by green hydrogen, but if we take a hard-line approach and insist on going for the zenith of green hydrogen immediately—all or nothing—I fear that it will probably not happen at all, which means we will have missed the opportunity to reduce our emissions now.

In some industries, those technologies are just not ready to go at a competitive price, and if we do not take those first steps now, over the medium term we will see those industries and jobs move abroad, and they might continue to emit the same levels of CO2 that they emit now. We would end up in a lose-lose situation. We would lose our chance to reduce emissions and lose the chance to preserve and increase the number of highly skilled, well-paid jobs that go with those industries. We know that there are voices out there that are only too ready to claim that protecting the environment costs jobs. We cannot give those voices any opportunity to gain strength. Our focus must be on delivering a just transition. Along with the need to bring people with us on the village itself, there is a wider need to bring the country with us and win the argument that, if we get the balance right, it will be a win-win rather than lose-lose situation.

Before I finish, I have a few further questions for the Minister about hydrogen more generally. Are the Government still on track to make a decision on heat by 2026? What will that decision look like? Will it unlock a hydrogen for heat industry in the UK, and unlock genuine choice for UK households in how they heat their homes in future? Can the Government match the ambition that has been expressed here about moving towards a hydrogen-based economy? Germany is investing 10 times the amount we are in the quest to deliver the same amount of hydrogen by 2030. I pose the question: is more support needed?

There could be more ambition in the number of hydrogen villages the Government can support. I do not see any benefit in the Government limiting the ambition to one hydrogen village trial. We will no doubt shortly hear about another one. Why not advance two schemes and double the learning? That would be in two different parts of the country, with two separate pieces of infrastructure. It seems the obvious way to go. The endless bidding wars and competitions that the Government specialise in do not always mean that the best projects succeed. They also mean that a lot of effort is expended on presentation, when we should all focus on delivery.

The potential of hydrogen is big enough to fit in two projects. If we do have a competitive process, I would be delighted if the Minister agreed to visit Whitby, possibly in July, to open the new customer centre, meet with Cadent and hear more about the hydrogen village project, as well as the many other innovative projects the company is delivering, not just to progress hydrogen for heat but in the wider hydrogen ecosystem.

I will conclude by saying why all this matters. I am sure we all want our planet to have a future, and I genuinely believe that we have the talent and innovation as a species to stop climate change overwhelming us. I am not so sure that we have the political will. It is through projects such as this that we will address that head-on and meet the challenge.

I want my constituency, because of where it is and because of its geology, history and industry, to be at the heart of this revolution, so that the people of Ellesmere Port can in future enjoy secure, well-paid jobs, on which they can raise a family, in a manufacturing industry that has enjoyed a renaissance, thanks to the advances we hope to make in carbon capture and hydrogen. I hope we end up living in a town where emissions have gone down but wealth has gone up, and that Ellesmere Port becomes a byword for innovation.