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The politics of hydrogen in the UK

A research project led by Dr John Szabo on a British Academy Visiting Fellowship to Brunel University London, with Brunel's Dr Gareth Dale as his mentor

There is an urgent need to meet climate goals, but the decisions society’s take and the fuel sources they support will have lasting repercussions. Consequently, it is pertinent that decision-makers take political decisions that allow for a rapid, efficient, and equitable energy transition. Hydrogen is poised to play a key role in decarbonisation and because it can be produced from renewables or natural gas (paired with carbon capture and storage) a number of interests are involved making its politics relevant for which the UK offers an exemplary case.

Hydrogen is frequently touted as the "silver bullet" that helps overcome the energy woes of European capitalist economies, by providing a source of energy that does not yield emissions upon combustion. It is, however, an energy carrier, which is produced from renewable and nuclear-based electricity (green and pink hydrogen, respectively), coal (brown or black hydrogen), natural gas (grey hydrogen), or natural gas paired with carbon capture and storage (blue hydrogen). It seemingly offers a straightforward solution to meeting non-electrifiable energy demand, prompting huge enthusiasm from policy-makers and industry alike. The emerging hype underpinned by policy goals suggests that it will play a prominent role in the European energy system in forthcoming decades, but there is still a lack of clarity as to what colour this hydrogen may be. This drives a power struggle predominantly between fossil fuel and renewable energy interests. This is a problematic I began to explore in papers and my dissertation by developing novel frameworks that draw on institutionalisms and critical theory. This project traces emergent discourses that capture these dynamics in the UK.

The project assesses hydrogen-related discourses in the UK, as the country has a relatively ambitious decarbonisation agenda and ample natural gas reserves allowing for a clash in respective interests. The UK’s endowment of overwhelmingly offshore natural gas resources paired with a long-standing oil and gas industry suggests that there will be a push for the adoption of blue hydrogen, of which early signs can already be perceived with respective projects taking shape (e.g. H21 project in Leeds). The UK also has an ambitious agenda to decarbonise its energy mix which includes the rapid growth of wind power, amongst others, and the scaling of electrolyser production (e.g. ITM Power). The puzzle that I will piece together – in collaboration with colleagues at Brunel University – is how respective interests have clashed and how has this shaped policy. I am curious how emergent technologies (e.g. those that support green hydrogen) challenge incumbent industry actors and how the latter have responded to the need to decarbonise. The strategies and relative power of industry actors are key in shaping not only public discourse, but the policy discourse as well and, thereby, the political-legal framework governing the energy sector. Analysing and theorising these dynamics offers novel insights for both energy transition scholarship and policy.

This research has policy-related implications, as it can inform how decisions taken by policy-makers impact the role of renewable energy-based and natural gas-based hydrogen in strategic planning and the unfolding regulatory framework. It can help identify how society can move towards a more sustainable and just society, while avoiding risks of reinforcing destructive power relations. The objective is to also publish easy-to-understand, widely distributed pieces, which can inform public knowledge and discourse on hydrogen.

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Project last modified 26/05/2023