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UK risks being left behind in hydrogen rush

Prominent entrepreneur calls on government to support industry before European competitors assume leading role

A leading British hydrogen advocate and industrialist has urged the UK’s Conservative government to do more to support the establishment of a hydrogen industry before the former EU country gets left behind by its continental rivals.

Jo Bamford, who has been involved in hydrogen for 15 years, is eager for the UK to take a leading role in the emerging global hydrogen economy. He says the government needs to help build demand in the domestic market to enable the industry to get off the ground.

While the EU launched its hydrogen strategy in July (see p80) and leading member states including Germany have produced initiatives, the UK is yet to make an equivalent commitment.

“You need to start with buses because that is where you can really create demand” Bamford, Ryse Hydrogen

Bamford, the executive chairman of Ryse, an operator of hydrogen distribution assets and electrolyers, rescued Northern Irish hydrogen bus manufacturer Wrightbus from administration in 2019. While he is “really interested in hydrogen, less interested in buses” he saw the need to support demand.

“You need to start with buses because that is where you can really create demand,” says Bamford. If you start with trucks “you have got a problem” because absence of predictable routes creates the need for a network of filling stations, rather than one at each bus depot.

The UK government has committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 and Transport for London, the operator of the capital’s buses, has been mandated to buy only zero-emission versions from this year—so there is potential for a deal.

Scale imperative

Bamford stresses that scale is essential. While the fuel cost and range are similar to those of diesel buses, he acknowledges that hydrogen ones cost twice as much. “But if you gave a single manufacturer [an order for] 3,000 buses, you could get a hydrogen bus to cost the same as a diesel bus,” he claims. “If you asked for 3,000 [fuel cells, even spread over five years] they would give you tomorrow’s price ­today.”

The Bamford family have been advocates of the value of building up British industry since Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s premiership. Jo Bamford is the son of billionaire Lord Bamford, chairman of family owned JCB, a prominent Brexiteer and a major donor—to the tune of close to £4mn ($5.2mn)—to the Conservative party.

“Britain could be a world leader [in hydrogen] like we were with oil at the beginning of the last century,” says Bamford, noting the success of BP and Shell.

He says there are only two zero-emission solutions to mobility: batteries and hydrogen. He adds that China’s domination of batteries, at 73pc of the world market, means the UK is “not going to really compete on that front” and needs to “go somewhere where there is less competition—and that is hydrogen. And go big and quickly, because you need to create a supply chain really quickly” before ­other markets.

“If Britain wants to be a big player in energy in the next 10, 20, 30 years, we only have about 12 months to make enough demand in this country to create the supply chain and cost base low enough,” he adds.

While he says “my view is you need to get to green hydrogen”, to build up demand “you have to start with other types of hydrogen as well”. He does not rule out so-called yellow hydrogen from small nuclear reactors and says strict adherence to green hydrogen could lead to power capacity issues. “I am slightly pragmatic about it… let us just get it started and then clean things up afterwards. We need to get this going.”

He says starting with industrial use “is wrong” as the economics are not viable given the lower cost the sector pays for energy compared to mobility.

“There is definitely, definitely a role for the government,” says Bamford. “You have to have some support mechanisms, some way of financing the kit [equipment],” he says, noting that bus finance rules should be reformed; he would like changes to the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation and increasing the carbon price “would be helpful”.

“Anything that can change your economics… because this is expensive stuff. And at the moment, it is difficult to make this work. The problem with hydrogen is that it does not work at very small numbers. But when you do big numbers, when you start productionising it all, the kit becomes less expensive.” 

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