Irish Times Column, August 3rd, 2023

The word “opportunity” appears many times throughout the long-awaited National Hydrogen Strategy, reflecting the ambition for Ireland to exploit a vast offshore wind energy resource and become a net energy exporter. The idea of turning this wind resource into green hydrogen, by using renewable electricity to split water molecules, requires careful thought. Will there even be significant global trade in renewable fuels, like there is for fossil fuels? And if there is, does Ireland have any comparative advantage which would allow it compete in that trade? Is there even any reason to think Ireland’s domestic energy system will need hydrogen that would justify the State investing in the fuel? These questions are far from being resolved, and should be closely examined before the State commits resources to hydrogen. Renewable energy is fundamentally different from fossil fuels. Oil, gas and coal are hard to abandon because they are so useful: extremely energy dense, stable and relatively easy to transport. They are also not evenly distributed across the planet, a fact that has made some countries amass great wealth from exporting them. On the other hand, wind and solar energy is abundant and widely distributed. It is also difficult and costly to store and transport. Hydrogen is also a very challenging molecule to handle safely, which Ireland has almost no experience with.
This implies that global trade in renewable energy will be far lower than in fossil fuels. Renewables, and hydrogen made from them will be largely produced where it is consumed. This is very good news for geopolitics and energy security. It also means there will probably be no “Saudi Arabia of renewable energy”. But proponents of hydrogen argue for its role in decarbonising so-called “hard to abate” sectors that cannot be directly electrified, like aviation, shipping and heavy industry. Hydrogen could be the energy vector to replace fossil fuels in those sectors. This is why Germany is courting countries like Ireland for their vast offshore wind resource. But if Germany imports green hydrogen, it will do so from the lowest-cost producer. It is also signing hydrogen trade agreements with renewable energy powerhouses like Norway, Spain and Denmark, who already have established hydrogen industries and in many cases are ahead of Ireland in their own energy transition. Could hydrogen from Ireland’s vast, but technically unproven Atlantic offshore wind resource, compete with these countries? Or compete to produce zero carbon fuels for airplanes and ships with countries like Australia with vast, cheap solar resources? I would not bet on it, especially when experts are recognising signs of an economic bubble in the excitement around hydrogen. The role of hydrogen in Ireland’s own future energy system is also highly uncertain. Hydrogen has barely even got off the starting blocks as an energy carrier, while electricity is racing ahead. There is no rationale for using hydrogen for low, or medium-temperature heat, for example. Heat pumps, which are advancing at pace, consume around one-sixth the primary energy. This closes the door on Gas Networks Ireland’s vision of injecting hydrogen into the gas grid. In the battle for dominance of future transport, battery electric vehicles largely won over hydrogen fuel cell vehicles years ago. Electrification is looking increasingly promising as the most cost-effective way to decarbonise even heavy-duty trucks and buses over more limited ranges like we have in Ireland. This points to an urgent need to reinforce and develop the electricity network, along with a plan to decommission much of the natural gas grid. Rather than pursuing hydrogen, efforts this decade should be placed into perhaps less glamorous tasks required to get off fossil fuels, like retrofitting buildings, building the power grid and developing public transport infrastructure. These measures are also key for making energy supply secure and affordable, but are often overlooked in discussions about energy independence. While I don’t have confidence that hydrogen will be Ireland’s green gold, there many other opportunities in enterprise and innovation from the energy transition. Addressing our huge decarbonisation challenges this decade will mean developing new skills and solutions. Sharing these with the world is an opportunity to accelerate global climate action through knowledge spill-overs, and for industries involved in servicing and manufacturing components of the energy transition. As the saying goes, “in a gold rush, sell shovels”. The forthcoming National Industrial Strategy for Offshore Wind would do well to consider what, in this context, are Ireland’s “shovels”. Moreover, energy-intensive industries have historically been located near abundant energy resources. Instead of exporting low-value energy commodities, perhaps a more strategic industrial strategy would seek to locate such industries here. But timing is crucially important: We must should learn from the difficulties created by attracting energy-intensive data centres while we still rely on fossil fuels. Chasing new industrial opportunities to use wind energy, including green hydrogen, will actually delay decarbonisation. New renewable electricity must first be dedicated to decarbonising the existing energy supply.