Last week the UK’s first public hydrogen filling station opened in Swindon. This news item slipped through the net somewhat, as all the media attention seemed to be focused upon the discovery of a natural gas field beneath Blackpool. However I believe that our new hydrogen filling station is just as significant a development, if not quite as “sexy” as 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas.
The hydrogen filling station looks like a conventional petrol station, and it takes a similar time to fill a hydrogen-powered vehicle as it does to fill a vehicle with petrol or diesel. Of course, Uma from The Human Race would have been delighted. Her father spent his lifetime decarbonising the Icelandic economy and hydrogen stations were the final piece of his jigsaw.
As a reluctant environmentalist, I love the idea of hydrogen filling stations. Compared to shale gas, hydrogen is a virtuous source of energy because it produces almost zero emissions. The process to “manufacture” pure hydrogen takes energy but, other than a small amount of nitrogen oxide, it does not produce any chemical by-products. So in theory, hydrogen allows us to drive around relatively unencumbered by green guilt.
So why hasn’t it caught on?
Well two reasons really.
Firstly, it takes as much energy (with attendant emissions) to synthesize Hydrogen as the use of the actual Hydrogen saves. Until the technology is developed to reduce this aspect of hydrogen production, then it will continue to be sidelined.
Even if this was not the case the distribution channels for this energy are simply not there for mass consumer take up – in say cars.
Take the USA. There are a few hydrogen filling stations there (such as the one pictured above), but there are more than 120,000 petrol stations. There is no way to replicate that sort of infrastructure overnight. It would take years to open enough hydrogen filling stations to produce a serious alternative to the gas filling station. Although some are built or added to existing sites, I can’t imagine that the petrol companies will be bending over backwards to ensure that they are rolled out on a wider scale.
Any competitors would have to consider acquiring other outlets, making planning applications, building the structures and manning them. Even with significant resources, it would take years to roll them out. Petrol already has that in place.
Electricity has an even greater advantage: it has an existing infrastructure everywhere. The clincher: it is in the home. That’s why electric cars are so attractive. The distribution network is in place. It doesn’t matter that electricity is a dirty fuel.
Which brings me back to the shale gas discovered in Lancashire last week. Now there’s another fuel with an established distribution infrastructure. Add in the benefit of thousands of jobs plus national fuel security and, leaving aside the high cost of extraction, isn’t it a no-brainer? No wonder politicians are tap dancing around the environmental issues.
So there you have it. Sadly hydrogen will never catch on in the UK – but expect fracking on a grand scale.
Image credit: ideowl.