Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourth Report


152. The hydrogen economy is considered by some to be the holy grail of energy policy, with hydrogen generated from renewable energy sources and possibly used as a fuel for local electricity generation or in vehicles (see Box 3). The timescale for this is long (30-50 years) but the deployment of hydrogen technology may begin considerably earlier—hydrogen-powered cars are already available. The DTI does not currently have a hydrogen programme but it is reconsidering this in the light of the recommendation by the ERRG report that it be given priority status. The UK Government's stance can be compared with that of the US: President Bush announced a $1.2 billion package in his State of the Union address on 28 January 2003 to develop the technologies and infrastructure needed to produce, store, and distribute hydrogen for use in fuel cell vehicles and electricity generation. This will bring total US expenditure on hydrogen research to $1.7 billion over the next five years. The EPSRC identifies hydrogen as a priority area but spending until now as been modest (£0.5 million in 2002-03), although it forms one of SUPERGEN's four themes and a virtual research centre was been set up in early 2003, coordinated by Birmingham University.[263]

Box 3: The hydrogen economy[264]

Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe although it does not exist in large quantities in a useful form. It can be produced from water or from hydrocarbons in fossil fuels or biomass. Hydrogen can be converted into energy using existing energy technologies, such as fuel cells, engines, and combustion turbines, with water the only waste product. It can be used as a fuel for vehicles (where development is progressing rapidly), as a means of storing energy, to provide heat or in stationary applications to generate electricity. It is therefore both a fuel and an energy carrier.

An energy infrastructure that relies on hydrogen could enable much greater use of

distributed energy systems in which small, modular electricity generators

can be placed right where they are needed for heating, cooling, and powering

offices, factories, and residences. In the short term, hydrogen will come from fossil fuels with CO2 produced as a by-product but its use would have advantages particularly in fuel cells whose higher efficiencies could lead to reductions in carbon emissions. Although on a weight for weight basis, hydrogen has more energy than any other fuel, it has a very low density. The production of hydrogen from non-carbon sources provides a significant challenge, as do storage and transport.

153. Industry is taking a keen interest in hydrogen. Shell Hydrogen has a large RD&D programme spending £18 million annually, mostly conducted in the Netherlands. BP spends £8 million a year but unlike Shell's activities, which are directed primarily at transport, BP is taking a broader perspective, looking at hydrogen generation, transportation and storage.[265] Intriguingly, the nuclear industry is taking an interest. BNFL's evidence to the inquiry describes how nuclear generation could be used to produce hydrogen, with high temperatures making the electrolysis more efficient.[266]

154. Technological progress is needed on transportation and storage. Hydrogen has a low density and so techniques are needed to store it in a space-efficient manner. We welcome the attention being given to hydrogen RD&D by the Government. There is a UK big opportunity to take the lead here in a key area of energy research.

Storage technologies

155. The intermittency of many renewable sources is likely to be an increasing problem as their contribution exceeds 10% of electricity generation, as the Trade and Industry Committee discussed in their report on Security of Energy Supply.[267] National Grid envisages that more short-term generation will be required. Currently storage in England and Wales consists of hydropower plants, in which water is pumped up to a reservoir and used to generate electricity at peak times. Hydrogen is one solution and another is fuel cells. Innogy is developing a form of fuel cell technology called Regenesys in which electrical energy is converted into chemical potential energy. On demand the process can be reversed. EPSRC is funding research in this area.[268]


156. Bioenergy is the use of crops to provide an energy source. Crops are carbon-based and their combustion provides energy but releases CO2. Since the crops have "fixed" the same amount of CO2 during their growth, their use for energy is considered carbon-neutral (although there is some net production of CO2 through energy expenditure during growth and processing). Plants can be used in three ways to provide energy:

157. Bioenergy RD&D is supported by the BBSRC, amounting to £255,000 in 2001-02, and by the EPSRC, amounting to £540,000 in 2001-02.[270] Departmental funding is split between the DTI, DEFRA and the Forestry Commission, with annual expenditures of £3-4 million, £600,000 and £300,000 respectively. This embraces emergy crop trials and the installation of conversion technologies. Further support will also come from the capital grants scheme led by the DTI and the New Opportunities Fund. DEFRA also has a budget of £32.5 million for energy crops establishment and infrastructure.[271] The ERRG report decided not to recommend bioenergy as one of its priority areas, describing it as having "good medium term prospects".

158. The Institute of Biology describes Government support as "piecemeal and lacking policy-driven direction".[272] The cross-Research Council programmes on "Towards a Sustainable Energy Economy" and "Rural Economy and Land Use" should offer a degree of coordination at the basic research level.[273] We are struck by the particularly high number of public funding bodies active in bioenergy. The Government should simplify its support schemes in this area.

159. Crucial to the uptake of biofuels is stimulation of the market. The Government has reduced the duty on biodiesel to 20pence/litre below the standard diesel rate and proposes to introduces the same incentive for bioethanol, subject to EU agreement. The Government envisages that these fuels could make up 5% of total fuel use by 2020. We welcome these initiatives. The Government must employ fiscal incentives to encourage the greater use of low-carbon fuels. We were interested to hear Brian Wilson's thoughts in this area but left disappointed: "Can we pass on biofuels ... I do not want to be over-departmental but biofuels is more on the transport and DEFRA side.[274]

Energy from waste

160. Energy recovery from waste includes a number of established and emerging technologies. Many wastes are combustible and energy can be recovered through incineration with electricity generation. We were pleased to see energy from waste included in the Government's submission to this inquiry but mystified as to why it received no mention in the ERRG report. Of greater concern were the comments from John Acton from Compact Power, a company "My perception is that it is a political hot potato because it is too far down the recycling and reuse, the normal cycle that if somebody stands up and says, 'We believe in energy from waste', they are actually saying that they are going to encourage waste being diverted into energy resources and I feel that that was really the pressure that came on perhaps from other sources".[275] The Government states that it is "keen to support the development of this sector" without explaining how it goes about doing this, other than hoping that the Renewables Obligation will provide the necessary incentive.[276] Certainly the modest investment by the EPSRC in energy from waste (£125,000) will do little do stimulate the sector.

161. We are aware of these tensions identified by Mr Acton but we note with interest the policies abroad identified by the recent Strategy Unit (formerly PIU) report on waste management. It found that even countries with high recycling rates incinerate a large proportion of their waste. The Netherlands incinerate around 30% of their waste (the UK currently incinerates about 9% of its waste) and in Italy, despite having kerbside recycling and other measures in place to tackle waste, the Government has recently decided to build some incinerators. It comments that incineration is widely used in other nations as a means of recovering some energy as electricity and heat. The report discussed the waste pyramid set out in the EU's Framework Directive on Waste, in which waste strategies were classified in the following order of priority:

  • waste reduction;
  • re-use;
  • recycling and composting;
  • energy recovery with heat and power;
  • energy recovery;
  • landfill with energy recovery; and
  • landfill.

The report argued that efforts should be made to move up the hierarchy.[277] We look forward to the conclusions of the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in their inquiries on "Winning the War on Waste" and "The Future of Waste Management: Moving up the Waste Hierarchy" respectively.

162. We support policies to encourage less wastage and more reuse and recycling but it is inevitable that there is waste and Government policy should place no obstacles in the way of technologies that can harness waste which cannot be recycled to generate power. We commend Mr Acton's initiative in moving his technology forward: "quite frankly we could not take the risk that we would not be decided to be the winners, so we have made our own independent arrangements".[278]

263   Ev 2 Back

264   Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Prospects for a Hydrogen Economy, Postnote number 186, October 2002 Back

265   Q 531 Back

266   Ev 49 Back

267   Second Report of the Trade and Industry Committee, Security of Energy Supply, session 2001-02, HC 364, para 35 Back

268   Ev 156 Back

269   Ev 81 Back

270   Ev 76 Back

271   Ev 108 Back

272   Ev 67 Back

273   DTI, Science Budget 2003-04 to 2005-06, November 2002, pp 25-28 Back

274   Qq 601-603 Back

275   Q 284 Back

276   DTI, Our energy future-creating a low carbon future, Cm 5761, February 2003, para 4.51 Back

277   Council Directive 75/442/EEC on waste, para.; Strategy Unit, Waste not, Want not: A strategy for tackling the waste problem in England, November 2002, paras 5.6-5.12 Back

278   Q 275 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 3 April 2003