The Scottish Government today published its Draft Hydrogen Action Plan. This claims to be ambitious and that it will result in Scotland being a world-leader on hydrogen production. How realistic is this and is it a package to be celebrated?
Working through this plan (as with most Scottish Government plans) involves wading through a lot of PR and filler to work out what strategy is really set out and to assess what specific actions are actually proposed. This mostly means filtering out commitments which begin with statements like ‘will continue to…’ or ‘will explore the possibility of a pilot project on…’.
What’s left? The most positive reading of this is that it seems reasonably ambitious in outcomes, has the structure of something like a coherent strategy and says a few of the right things.
So for example it is built around a sensible approach of taking steps to encourage the development of an industry, accepting that much will be learned as we go and recognising that it is essential that there must be ‘demand stimulation’ domestically to enable the nascent industry to function. This is all more or less what Common Weal set out in the Common Home Plan two years ago.
From there though matters go downhill. To create a reality check on the narrative ambition it is worth noting the scale of ambition of financing to deliver this plan. The proposal is to invest £100m over five years, or £20m a year.
This is tiny. To put it into perspective, the annual sum is about a third of the amount Edinburgh City Council gave a property developer build a shopping mall. Or perhaps more pertinently, it is less than a third of the sum the Scottish Government gave the oil and gas sector in one year to help it ‘recover from Covid’.
In reality, £20m a year to develop an entirely new industry is not serious investment. This is supposed to deliver 15 per cent of Scotland and yet comes in at 0.2 per cent of the value of oil and gas extraction alone.
So how is this meant to work? Unfortunately at this point the plan appears to rely on dishonesty. It states “We are determined to ensure the strategy for deployment of these technologies must enable decarbonisation at pace and cannot be used to justify unsustainable levels of fossil fuel extraction or impede Scotland’s just transition to net zero”.
While Scotland waits to discover that the promises of CCS have turned into a failure the oil and gas industry will be able not only to keep pumping out fossil fuels at the current rate but actually be able substantially to expand
Great, but it is also clear that by far the bulk of the investment is supposed to be made by the oil and gas industry. Here we run into a new rebranding process – traditionally hydrogen made from renewable energy is called ‘green hydrogen’ while that made from fossil fuels is called ‘blue hydrogen’ – but only if the carbon dioxide released in the process is all captured and stored.
The oil industry doesn’t like this. In the recent Scottish Enterprise hydrogen strategy (produced in conjunction with the oil and gas industry) they tried to redefine ‘green hydrogen’ to include blue hydrogen. That wasn’t successful so here we have a new branding – ‘renewable hydrogen’ (green) and ‘low-carbon hydrogen’ (blue). This appears designed to confuse people.
It is blue hydrogen which is at the heart of the narrative of this plan (other than pilots and small-scale developments) and the Scottish Government has promised not to put any funding into ‘unabated hydrogen’ (the new name for ‘brown hydrogen’ which emits as much carbon dioxide as burning the fossil fuels).
Then again, the gap between the cost of producing brown and blue hydrogen is much, much bigger than the entire £100m committed to the plan. So as long as the Scottish Government is willing to buy brown hydrogen the oil and gas industry can produce it in a cost-effective manner and doesn’t need subsidy.
The technological breakthrough required to turn this from brown to blue (i.e. working Carbon Capture and Storage) is much, much further away than the technology to produce green hydrogen. Very few think it possible to have CCS operating in Scotland on the necessary scale by 2030 (the target date) and very many believe CCS will never be made to work.
Again, to put this into perspective, a US attempt to get industrial scale CCS working burned its way through $7.5bn dollars before it was abandoned because it didn’t work. That is to say that the Scottish Government hopes to make this happen by investing less than two per cent of the amount it cost to achieve total failure in the US.
In the meantime, while Scotland waits to discover that the promises of CCS have turned into a failure the oil and gas industry will be able not only to keep pumping out fossil fuels at the current rate but actually be able substantially to expand the amount of polluting greenhouse gasses as it moves heavily into dirty hydrogen production.
The Scottish Government’s plan appears to be nothing more than an elaborate trick to disguise the fact that Scotland is actually about to increase substantially the amount of fossil fuel it produces – in the name of decarbonisation.
This is not a plan to create a hydrogen industry, this is a plan to boost the oil and gas industry and make much worse Scotland’s contribution to climate change over the next decade.