Farming, Energy Policy and the Hydrogen Economy

Sunday, 7 January, 2018


Farming, Energy Policy and the Hydrogen Economy

Written by Chris Osborne, UFU Senior Policy Officer

Almost 100 years ago, the renowned British scientist JBS Haldane envisaged a future for energy whereby wind power could be used to generate hydrogen, describing it as being “weight-for-weight, the most efficient known method of storing energy”.  However, at the time, Haldane thought that any progress would be as much as centuries away, but the so-called “hydrogen economy” may arrive much sooner thanks to recent innovative progress in hydrogen generation. 

The Northern Ireland land-based renewable energy sector is currently closed to new generation, with grid connection and a glaring lack of future energy policy from Government, leading UFU Rural Enterprise Chairman Gary Hawkes to ask the question; “Where now for small scale renewables in Northern Ireland?”  Yet the Hydrogen Economy might form part of the answer in the future.

Northern Ireland has one of the most fruitful wind resources in Western Europe, yet no one is now able to connect to the electricity grid, with hundreds of disappointed applicants whose projects never reached fruition.  Added to this, ROCs have been withdrawn and the majority of projects relied upon subsidised support to start-up.

The key to the potential role for hydrogen in small scale renewable landscape is that it isn’t actually a fuel; it’s an energy carrier. Hydrogen is transportable and can be used for heat, power and transport.

In late 2017, UFU Rural Enterprise Chairman Gary Hawkes attended an Action Renewables Energy Association-hosted-seminar ‘The Hydrogen Economy’ in Belfast.  Following on from this, the UFU Rural Enterprise Committee invited Paul McCormack, Programme Manager at GenComm, to present to the UFU on the prospects for the hydrogen economy in relation to the small scale renewable sector in Northern Ireland.  

Whilst the UFU have long been advocates of the advantages and merits of battery storage, the vision for the future of renewables in Northern Ireland is widening; now there could be viable alternatives to conventional grid connection for many renewable generation projects which to-date have no prospect of seeing the light of day.  Imagine a situation where a renewable generator, for example, a wind turbine, with an electrolyser attached, was to produce hydrogen rather than renewable electricity, with no reliance upon subsidised support or grid connection.

With the Government targeting diesel car users, in pursuit of reducing carbon emissions, many fear that the focus may turn on tractor owners.  Yet “smart hydrogen” has been identified as having a zero carbon footprint.  Many tractor manufacturers are pressing ahead with the development of hydrogen-powered engines, and this will lead to a reduction in the reliance upon fossil fuels. All reinforcing the growing link between farming and the hydrogen economy. 

INTERREG funding has been made available for a local pilot project, and if successful could change the small scale renewable energy policy landscape in Northern Ireland.

We are under no illusion that many policy barriers will need to be overcome, but only by keeping an open mind on what the future may hold, will the local renewable energy sector stand a chance of evolving beyond the current quagmire we currently find ourselves in.