Since the domestication of horses and the invention of the wheel, transport has developed in sudden fits and starts, revolution rather than evolution, and with each change society and the economy have found new ways to flourish. The Romans linked Europe in a vast trading empire with new techniques in surveying and construction for roads, and the Victorians shrunk the world with steam power.
A century of change
Indeed, many of the rapid changes in the last century have been driven, at least in part, by the extraordinary adoption of the internal combustion engine, freeing people up to travel and trade at their own pace. Today, another seismic change is underway in the way we live, travel and work. We are finding ways to develop technologies to transform the way that we travel and the air that we breathe.
A few weeks ago, I had a peek into this exciting new world of discovery, on a visit to Swindon’s Hydrogen Hub. Not only did I get to hear about the potential hydrogen and fuel cell technologies offer the UK in securing cost-effective, clean and secure energy for power, heat and transportation; I also heard about the world leading innovation taking place in my local area. Johnson Matthey, and Swindon in its own right, are pioneering developments in fuel cell technology – bringing forward products that are now on the brink of commercial viability.
Not that long ago, horsepower was the relied-upon means of transport for most people in the UK. Now I find myself touring a hydrogen refuelling station and having the opportunity to refuel a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. So, what are these hydrogen fuel cell cars like? Well, the one I had the pleasure of refuelling looks like a regular petrol or diesel car, drives like a regular car, and filling up is no more burdensome than refuelling my own car. Yet it has a secret. Instead of CO2 at the tailpipe, it emits only harmless water vapour; instead of a battery, hydrogen and a fuel cell produce the electricity to power its motors. It’s clean, it’s efficient and it’s difficult not to get excited by this new technology.
Revolutionising our energy sources
And this is just a snapshot of the ground-breaking innovation under way across the UK. Developing and deploying hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles will help us meet our ambition that all new cars and vans should be zero-emission by 2040, as fuel cell technology could offer a longer-term solution in the harder to decarbonise bus and freight sectors.
We are revolutionising our energy sources across all walks of life. Last year, through our modern Industrial Strategy we launched the Faraday Research Challenge with £246m of investment to establish the UK as the go-to destination for innovation in battery technology. We are also providing £23m to grow the hydrogen for transport sector, supporting customers to buy these low-emission vehicles and increasing the number of refuelling stations, so that low-emission vehicles are an established part of the travel infrastructure.
Not only will this help us meet our emissions reduction targets, it will also lead to cleaner air to breathe, and a natural environment that is more pleasant and more sustainable. But hydrogen has the potential to transform more than just the way we travel. Last year, we published the Clean Growth Strategy, our blueprint for decarbonising the UK’s economy throughout the 2020s. Here we set out our commitment to exploring a wide range of clean energies, including hydrogen, to heat our homes and businesses across the country.
Let’s be honest – hydrogen is expensive as an energy alternative. We are aware that for this to be a sustainable and realistic option, we need to bring these costs down. And that is why we have announced a series of investments in research and development for hydrogen technology – including a £20m boost to look at how we can significantly reduce these high costs of producing large volumes of low-carbon hydrogen.
There is an upswing of interest in hydrogen as some of the technological barriers are diminishing – fuel cell life is extending, and hydrogen vehicles are already on our roads. It is clear to me that hydrogen has the potential to provide clean, reliable and flexible energy for families and businesses, while creating a new innovative sector in the UK.
Economic and environmental benefits
Just six years ago, dirty coal power stations accounted for 40 per cent of our electricity. Now this figure stands at seven per cent. An unprecedented level of investment in renewables means that we have the biggest installed offshore wind capacity in the world.
For too long we have been reliant on dirty fuels. Now, around 50 per cent of our electricity comes from clean sources. There’s a reason why the world is looking to the UK as a model for how you can grow the economy in a clean, green way. I am proud that we continue to lead the world in tackling climate change – since 1990 we have cut our emissions by more than 40 per cent while growing our economy by over two thirds.
Innovation and world-leading research has been the key to this success. By 2021 we will have invested more than £2.5bn in low-carbon innovation. Our unwavering commitment to tackling climate change and desire for the UK to benefit from the multi-billion pound investment opportunity presented by the transition to a low-carbon economy, means that we have invested the most amount of public money in science and research in almost 40 years.
The UK leading the way
One thing that struck me on my visit to Swindon is that the UK starts from a position of strength when it comes to growing a world-leading hydrogen economy. We have the right skills and infrastructure. We already have a successful hydrogen economy based around the chemicals industry and engineering strengths in fuel cells, electrolysis and boiler manufacture.
We are poised to seize the economic opportunities of hydrogen. Our low-carbon economy employs more than 200,000 people – and scaling up hydrogen technologies is one of the many ways we can maximise UK businesses’ share of new and growing global markets in clean technologies.
The Prime Minister has been clear that we will leave the world a better place for future generations, and I am committed to this vision. We are on track to meet or over-deliver against our first three carbon budgets. If we get decarbonisation right and take clean energy sources even further, we will not just deliver against the Paris Agreement – we will have cleaner air, lower energy bills, and fantastic employment opportunities. If we get it right, the low-carbon future looks bright, and hydrogen looks to be an exciting part of it.
Article originally appeared in the 15th June edition of the New Statesman.