Big Energy, a Total Corporate Capture of the UK’s Carbon Reduction Plan

THIS week the UK Government announced its long-awaited “green recovery plan”.  This is designed not just to meet carbon reduction targets by 2050 but to transform British industry into an environmental and climate change champion, creating hundreds of thousands of “green” jobs in the process. What’s not to like?
As it happens, there’s everything not to like and everything to be suspicious about.  Here’s a scheme devised under the egis of the late, unlamented Dominic Cummings and fronted by showman Boris. Did you really think the Tory green industrial plan was worth the paper it was written on?
To summarise: the Tory green industry plan represents the capture – in total – of the UK’s “carbon reduction” strategy by Big Energy.  Far from allowing the UK to cut carbon emissions to “net zero”, the Tories are proposing a strategy calculated to reinforce the long-term use of methane (worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas) in the UK energy mix, subsidise a new generation of dangerous.  Plus they want to subsidise a new generation of unproven mini nuclear reactors. Welcome to the nightmare.
The core proposal – lost amid the media coverage of the proposal to end the sale pf petrol cars by 2030 – is to link carbon-reduction plans to the development of blue hydrogen production as an industrial and domestic fuel source.  Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe and has a high energy content. It has the attractive feature that when you burn it, the result is water (HO2).  Mind you, hydrogen is quite explosive – witness the Hindenburg airship disaster.
The problem is not hydrogen so much as the fact that the big energy companies have spent the past 50 years investing heavily in natural gas pumped in from the North Sea or Russia.  That’s basically methane (CH4). Methane is more potent than CO2 in trapping the sun’s energy and creating a warming effect.  The good news is that methane remains short-lived in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide.
The really bad news is that we are much less organised to cut down methane emissions.  Methane emissions are responsible for around a third of near-term climate warming.  Last year, about 360 million tons of methane were released globally through human activities.  Think about that when you turn on the central heating or fry an egg.
To get to net zero emissions we need to do something about burning natural gas. Unfortunately, Big Energy has sunk so much into methane/natural gas provision that switching to another technology will hit profits. As it is, Big Energy is pouring cash into electrical renewables (wind and solar power). Scrapping methane production and distribution would really put the kibosh on profits.  That’s where blue hydrogen comes in.
You can manufacture hydrogen from sea water, leaving oxygen as a by-product. That takes a lot of energy.  Currently the process is very expensive because it is done on a small scale. But up-scaling at a global level, using renewable electricity, would slash the cost. That is the obvious way to go.  Call this the “green” hydrogen economy.  Except, of course, the big energy companies have all that methane production and distribution hardware to pay for.
Surprise, surprise: Big Energy has come up with a scheme to make so-called blue hydrogen from methane.  The “blue” here is just adman’s misinformation. Making hydrogen from methane is both expensive and dirty.  True, it is less expensive than making clean hydrogen from sea water – but only for now.  The current price edge is because the methane infrastructure is already in place. No expert doubts that making clean/green hydrogen from sea water on an industrial scale would slash the ultimate cost.
Alas, under capitalism, profit trumps rationality.  So Big Energy has used its lobbying clout to persuade the UK (and EU) governments that methane-produced hydrogen should be the core strategy to reach net-zero emissions. Unfortunately for the planet, splitting methane to create hydrogen has two problems.
First, the methane extraction and delivery infrastructure leaks methane into the atmosphere.  And second, making hydrogen from methane – wait for it – produces our old friend CO2!  That’s right, methane-based blue hydrogen production generates more CO2, the other greenhouse gas we are trying to eliminate. Result: the only way that a blue hydrogen economy gets you to net-zero is by finding a way to bury the CO2 created in its production.  That is the “small print” in the Westminster government’s new energy strategy.
Of course, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is going to be necessary whatever we do, as a mid-term palliative. But do not be misled. CCS on a giant industrial scale has never been attempted. It will be expensive, and lots can go wrong.  So: the Tories are offering a strategy for reaching net-zero that is very, very net indeed. It involves using a greenhouse gas (methane) on a vast scale, then bleeding off CO2 (again on a gigantic scale) and trapping it safely forever (hardly reassuring).
All this guff is being wrapped up in visions of a new industrial future based on cheap(er) hydrogen.  Interestingly, virtually the same erotic vision is being punted in the EU.  German capitalism (and its Dutch sidekick) is in serious trouble.  German-Dutch technology (diesel cars, dumb machines and dumb white goods) have lost their competitive edge to US and Chinese high tech and artificial intelligence.
As a commercial antidote, the Germans and Dutch are proposing vast new investments in blue hydrogen production.  The aim is to reduce the EU manufacturing cost base ahead of similar moves in the US and China – assuming the latter two nations continue with decarbonisation. The elimination of Donald Trump (who represents a wing of domestic US capital that uses old fashioned carbon energy) helps the Europeans in the short-term.
The UK blue hydrogen plan is bonkers for several reasons. First and foremost, it will not resolve the climate emergency. On the contrary, an economy based on blue hydrogen will not reduce emissions. Secondly, the UK and the Germano-EU are set on pursuing exactly the same industrial strategy.  This is a tribute to the madness of Dominic Cummings, who sees/saw the UK as a version of Hong Kong sitting offshore of Europe, poaching German and French investment, jobs and manufacturing.  As if the Germans and Dutch haven’t seen that one coming.
What does this mean for Scotland?  For the past two years, the Scottish Government has joined Westminster in co-funding the so-called Acorn project – the pilot for blue hydrogen production.  Acorn is still at the feasibility stage but envisages North Sea natural gas coming ashore at the St Fergus terminal, north of Peterhead, being turned into blue hydrogen. This would be “mixed” into normal domestic and industrial gas supplies.  The CO2 by-product would be pumped back under the North Sea.
The Westminster Government’s new green industry plan promises funding for a blue hydrogen plant.  The Acorn project will be shovel-ready by next year and so looks like a ready contender for this money. In the current political climate, Boris may be keen to offer Scotland cash in the run-up to the Holyrood elections.  This, of course, would be the ultimate poison chalice.
An independent Scotland should reject the blue hydrogen route. It is the ultimate cul-de-sac in dealing with climate catastrophe. It will only put Big Energy back in charge and able to subvert action to save the planet. The surer route is to press on an create a genuine green economy, cracking hydrogen from sea water using Scottish wind power.

Comments (4)

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  1. Graham Ennis says:

    I am beyond furious at the Scottish Government being conned into taking part in this.
    They have on call, in Scotland, excellent scientists, technologists, and experts on climate change.
    So who in the Edinburgh Government made this disastrous mistake?.
    Why did SCOTGOV not use the experts that were to hand?
    its almost another example of how the SNP is now being run by people who simply do not understand
    what is going on, and what needs to be done.
    The grass roots support of the SNP are getting very fed up and annoyed.
    Firstly though, the key issue:
    I am talking about the real info on the climate change that is now going on, speeding up relentlessly, and right on the edge of
    what is called “RUNAWAY” which is irreversible and will run until the end.
    Right now, the actual northern hemisphere temperature increase is about one tenth of a degree every year, Thats a degree per decade.
    in the Arctic, its worse, its almost a degree a year, now. It wobbles up and down, from year to year. But it means that in about
    ten years, thats it, for the Arctic sea ice. most of it will be gone, in the summer, and the date of the first ice forming is getting pushed back. This year, it was about 5 weeks late. This will get worse. Again, the ice is getting fragile. Greenland’s ice cap is NOT melting. Its actually breaking up, and sliding into the sea.
    All of this leads to even more bad things, in our life times.
    How do I know all this?….I was one of the first scientists to help the formation of AMEG (Arctic Methane Emergency Group.). The things we found out about are the stuff of night mares. The present corporate schemes to make a last burst of profits out of all this, before the inevitable economic, climatic, and social collapse happens. We are already seeing alarming things. I do not think, (along with others) that there is much chance of us making it past 2050 as a functioning society. Given the constantly accelerating speed of climate change, it could well be sooner. So making investments in risky and not particularly efficient technologies, is a huge diversion from getting to grips with the whole system collapse. I note that the UK Government has no plans for the coming disruption of the food supply, or the massive and violent changes to our weather system, that have already begun to happen. I also note that SCOTGOV is not making any investments in its own independent science and tech research on climate, and its key cabinet members seem unaware of any of the things I have mentioned here. Its just following the rest of the sheep, with these methane projects. Comments very welcome, but I now no longer work in this area. I retired, and paint a lot. 9Whats the point? SNP are as clueless as the other European political parties. It also does not appear to be making long term emergency plans, or even understanding the urgent necessity o f it.

  2. Derek says:

    ” the result is water (HO2)”

    H2O, no?

    It’s also far less energy-intensive to split hydrogen off from urine, as the bonds are weaker than those to water. Solar panels/wind turbines and a storage tank (the difficult bit) at sewage farms, anyone?

  3. Blair says:

    Global temperature has been progressively rising in line with global energy use.

    CO2, Methane and other by products have been found to trap the heat created. Does this not assist us in using less energy to provide heating in our homes etc.? Insulation saves us from having to burn (waste) more fuel to keep warm.

    The problem is not per say with with burning fossil fuels, but the requirements of global corporations & their share holders seeking ever larger profits and the means they deploy to ensure that our governments will treat them more favourably: It does not help when our elected officials are open to financial incentives and help to keep things running with a bias.

    If we are to reverse the global warming we need to cut down on energy use, ideally by using clean renewable energy as this will help us in creating a healthy environment for all living creatures on our planet.

    In addition to cutting energy use we need our governments to restructure how they tax energy domestically and industrially. The aim should be to conserve as far as possible to minimise waste and ensure that energy poverty is eliminated through fairer pricing.

    We can utilize technology to implement the changes. Scots should not need to fear independence but be concerned because our UK government is not pursuing policies that are in our interest: Better to be in a union YES, better to work together YES. Better to be independent and be partners with Europe, this is way.
    A simple choice between England/US trade and Europe which Boris and his English Tory government will do everything in their power to stop us having.

    The challenge for Scots is to overcome fear and start believing their own energy can be utilized for good.

  4. Colin Mackay says:

    They are running the ferries on clean hydrogen powered by the waves in Orkney, see Emec. It works and works well. No idea why Scottish government haven’t seized that opportunity. Or the wind renewables opportunity.

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