The South West of England and Wales is set to become the UK’s first hydrogen ecosystem, as unveiled in transformative plans by the Western Gateway partnership and the GW4 alliance.
In 2015, 196 international parties, including the United Kingdom, adopted the Paris Agreement. There is an increasing ecological pressure to meet these demands, requiring a shift from the current global fossil fuel hegemony to renewable
energy sources, also known as the green energy transition.
One of these proposed energy sources is hydrogen, the most abundant element on Earth and able to be obtained from a variety of sources. It is nearly four times less dense than natural gas, and travels faster through a pipeline, with the
potential to utilise already-existing natural gas pipelines for its transport.
While it is unsafe to transport hydrogen in steel pipelines, it may be transported in polyethylene pipes at low and intermediate pressures. The British government began an Iron Mains Replacement Programme in 2002 and this is scheduled to
finish in 2035. The programme is working to replace all iron pipes in the UK with polyethylene pipes, and potentially larger plastic pipes which are able to transport hydrogen at higher pressures.
Scientists distinguish between three methods of hydrogen production. The first involves splitting natural gas into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide escapes into the atmosphere, and the remaining hydrogen is termed grey
hydrogen due to the emissions resulting from the process.
The second process also involves splitting natural gas, but in this case the carbon dioxide is captured using Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) technology, producing what is referred to as blue hydrogen.
Blue hydrogen has been criticised by numerous studies, which have found that its lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions are comparable to those produced from burning natural gas, coal and diesel oil, and in some cases can be significantly
The third method—Green hydrogen—is obtained through the electrolysis of water. Electrolysis refers to the use of electricity to split a compound into its constituent elements—in this case, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Hydrogen in the South West
Hydrogen has picked up particular interest in the South-West of England and Wales, an area with an especially strong history in engineering and energy.
The Western Gateway partnership (a collective of local authorities and enterprises in the ‘Western Gateway’, the area spanning the south of Wales) and the GW4 alliance (the universities Exeter, Bath, Bristol and Cardiff) have released an
online interactive map highlighting the key components of the South West’s planned hydrogen economy—a cluster of businesses, research centres and local authorities taking action to facilitate the rise of hydrogen as an energy source.
A select few of these organisations are also active members of the Hydrogen South West consortium, a partnership working together to roll out hydrogen infrastructure across the South West.
Examples of the hydrogen ecosystem being put into practice are the green hydrogen facilities being built in Emersons Green, Bristol and Langage, Devon. The facility in Emersons Green is being built in Bristol and Bath Science Park after
securing a £2.5 million grant from the West of England Combined Authority committee (WECA), and it is estimated that it will bring around £5 million to the area.
Meanwhile, the Langage facility in Devon is being developed by Carlton Power, an independent renewable energy company which has previously delivered green hydrogen projects elsewhere in the UK.
One large target for the hydrogen industry is domestic heating, as currently 77.9% of the households in the Western Gateway are heated by gas. In 2020, 12% of all households in Wales were in fuel poverty—defined as spending more than 10% of
their income on maintaining satisfactory heating—with this number likely to have increased given the ongoing cost of living crisis caused by the war in Ukraine.
Replacing natural gas with renewables like green hydrogen, solar power and wind power requires a vast overhaul of the area’s current infrastructure and a dramatic increase in the capacity for renewable generation and storage. Therefore,
domestic heating in the region is unlikely to reach net-zero by 2030. However, reaching net-zero by 2050 is achievable with appropriate funding and action taken within reach.
The region’s airports, including Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter, are also major future targets for the proposed hydrogen ecosystem. Plymouth airport, which is currently closed down, could see itself reopened as a hydrogen-fuelled passenger
aircraft centre, according to Peter Davies, Air Southwest’s former chief executive.
Bristol Airport is one of the founding members of the Hydrogen South West consortium, and is collaborating with global corporations Airbus and Linde in efforts to develop Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) utilising liquid hydrogen produced
from renewable electricity. They say that their ambition is to bring a zero-emission commercial aircraft to market by 2035.
But is hydrogen all that it is cracked up to be?
Various Friends of the Earth chapters across the globe have called for an end to grey and blue hydrogen production, denouncing them as greenwashing methods utilised by the fossil fuel industry given their emissions.
A report commissioned by the organisation this year delves into US blue hydrogen projects, which have recently received billions in federal funding as part of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs (IIJA) bill, signed into law by
Joe Biden in November 2021.
On the other hand, Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which promised a less-carbon intensive energy grid fuelled instead by renewables such as solar and wind, failed to pass alongside it.
The IIJA bill stipulates that it will provide funding for projects with onsite emissions rates of less than two kilograms of carbon per one kilogram of hydrogen produced, meaning that blue hydrogen projects with massive offsite
emissions will go ahead with additional funding.
Friends of the Earth’s analyses of offsite emissions led yet again to the conclusion that producing and combusting blue hydrogen leads to more emissions than combusting natural gas. They then point to reports like ‘Hydrogen for EU’ which
was sponsored by a litany of oil giants including BP, ExxonMobil and Shell, as evidence for their claim that the interest in blue hydrogen stems from profit-seeking by a fossil-fuel industry with the technology for its production.
Shell and BP have also lobbied the UK government for a hydrogen-based national grid, as part of the hydrogen lobby group Hydrogen Taskforce, with hydrogen going from being mentioned in parliament 18 times in 2015 to 392 times in 2020.
These corporations would undoubtedly benefit from blue hydrogen investment and policy by the UK government. Westwood Energy Group, an energy market research and consultancy firm, estimates that although there are four times as many green
hydrogen projects planned for the UK and Norway than blue hydrogen projects, ultimately blue hydrogen will account for 90% of the total hydrogen produced.
Although the Hydrogen South West Consortium has announced that the planned hydrogen economy will be founded on exclusively green hydrogen, there are concerns as to the feasibility of green hydrogen projects replacing fossil fuels.
Manufacturing green hydrogen requires a lot of electricity. For the hydrogen to be truly green, this should come from renewable sources such as solar and wind power. Therefore, critics have argued that the stage of hydrogen
manufacture should be skipped and solar and wind power should be used as direct energy supplies.
Friends of the Earth consequently argues that when climate funding goes to green hydrogen projects rather than renewables such as solar and wind, this directly harms energy transition goals.
The green hydrogen approach to heating is also more expensive than using natural gas, causing concerns that it could exacerbate fuel poverty. E3G, a climate change think tank, suggests that retrofitting houses to be more energy efficient
(particularly in areas vulnerable to fuel poverty) in conjunction with utilising electricity generated by solar power and wind is the solution required to reduce the UK’s dependence on Russian gas.
The widespread adoption of small-scale renewable measures like heat pumps and solar panels would also mean that households could produce and store energy themselves.
A report released in 2021, entitled ‘How Green is Blue Hydrogen?’ stated definitively that blue hydrogen ‘has no role in a carbon-free future.’ If the South West truly wants an environmentally conscious hydrogen economy, it will need to
solely rely upon green hydrogen, which is truly net-zero.
As well as this, the planned hydrogen economy in the South West relies primarily on the private sector. With opinion polls showing that the majority of the UK public are in support of nationalising energy, and energy networks being
notoriously hard to regulate and vulnerable to market shocks—such as seen through the Russian war on Ukraine—it is possible that a privately-funded hydrogen economy will be unable to meet the dual challenges of fuel poverty and the climate
As the South-West’s plans develop, and the hydrogen economy rolls out across the region, time will tell of its durability.
King, A. and Benstead, S. (2021) ‘How the Hydrogen Lobby is Greenwashing Fossil Fuel.’ Tribune. Available at:
https://tribunemag.co.uk/2021/06/how-the-hydrogen-lobby-is-greenwashing-fossil-fuels/ [Accessed October 27th, 2022]
Morgan, H. (2021) ‘Blue hydrogen marks a new era of greenwashing.’ Rethink Research. Available at:
https://rethinkresearch.biz/articles/blue-hydrogen-marks-new-era-of-greenwashing/ [Accessed October 27th, 2022]