Hydrogen breakthrough?

Future success of the UK’s hydrogen economy depends on communicating beyond industry to those who stand to benefit most from its development – the British public

Written by Michael Zdanowski, Head of Energy

For those working in the energy industry, it feels like hydrogen has been around for a long time. Many remember the ambitious commitments of George W. Bush and the European Commission back in 2003. The UK’s Prime Minister at that time, Tony Blair, was similarly enthusiastic about hydrogen’s transformative low carbon potential. But even at the time it felt very much “top-down”.

Fast-forward 15 odd years - can we really say that the UK’s hydrogen economy has fully delivered on its vast potential?

There are notable successes including a number of hydrogen-powered buses around the capital and a few other major UK cities. Fuel cell developers in the UK have made good ground internationally too.

As a communicator in the energy space, I still cannot escape the feeling that the hydrogen economy has been talked of for quite some time without ever delivering the vision and objectives of Government or the industry itself.

The general public, meanwhile, has had few direct touchpoints with hydrogen that showcase the fuel’s enormous benefits and potential for their lives. Surely a more relevant question is, has the hydrogen industry been telling the right story to the right people?

Public acceptance is crucial

In fact, recent research carried out by Madano’s Insights team for the Committee on Climate Change (to be published soon) found that a series of barriers remain to public acceptability of hydrogen as a low-carbon alternative to natural gas in heating.

In transport, the news for hydrogen is similarly mixed. According to a recent study from EV Volumes, just 87 fuel-cell vehicles were sold during the first six months of 2018, compared to 66 in the first half of 2017. According to the same research, sales of battery electric and plug-in hybrid cars were up 42% in the first six months of 2018 compared to the first six months of 2017 meaning that there are now over 1 million EVs in Europe.

This conclusion might not surprise many but it is instructive. If the UK’s hydrogen players want to accelerate hydrogen in transport, in heating and in commercial applications, it seems self-evident that it must refocus its sights on communicating to the general public and generating excitement in the technology. It is similarly clear that Government has to make choices – consumer consent is a key factor in helping to persuade Government to back a technology.

Public acceptance is crucial. People can’t get excited about hydrogen if the industry looks inwardly, talks to the same audiences and relies on central Government to tell their story – anyone following the smart meter rollout can point out the pitfalls in this strategy.

Creating “demand pull”

The public’s rapidly growing interest in EVs serves as the most cogent template for hydrogen. By creating “demand pull” among the public over the past few years, car manufacturers have become more confident in investing in EV technology. As the technology has improved and costs gone down, more people are interested in investing in an EV as their next vehicle.

Consequently, car manufacturers are now spending significant amounts of cash on ads featuring EVs rather than their existing conventional combustion-engine ranges. Indeed, just this past week, Mercedes launched its EV SUV range to global fanfare.

Is hydrogen a special case?

One could easily argue that hydrogen is a special and complex case given its range of applications beyond transport. It might be more relevant to talk of hydrogen economies. It is a considerable leap of faith for many to envisage a zero emission hydrogen boiler replacing natural gas in homes, particularly the general public.

Yet, by taking baby steps first and focusing on hydrogen’s potentially positive impact on people’s lives starting in transport and the home, the industry can deliver a strong narrative that hydrogen is clean, safe and affordable because the tangible benefits can be seen and grasped by everyone.

Where next for the UK’s hydrogen economy?

With EVs wowing increasing numbers of people and with the Government firmly committed to the low carbon economy through its Clean Growth Strategy, there is clear impetus for the UK’s hydrogen players to move beyond a focus on policy to speak directly to those who will ultimately decide whether the UK’s hydrogen economy will be successful or not – the British public.

As the Committee on Climate Change’s upcoming report reveals, the general public are more likely to accept the role of hydrogen in the home if it can be shown to provide additional utility and once both short- and long-term considerations about the technology’s safety and convenience have been answered.

This week Madano is bringing together leading figures from the UK’s hydrogen industry from vehicle manufacturers to energy companies to those that advise them directly to look at how the hydrogen story can be told in new and interesting ways to gain the public’s acceptability.

We encourage you to be part of our conversation.

If you’re interested in Madano’s work in hydrogen and in energy communications in the low carbon economy please drop me or the team a line.