A fuel cell powered future can help the UK keep the lights on

Those of us keeping an eye on the headlines from the energy sector could be forgiven for experiencing a sense of deja vou this morning as once again speculation about the UK’s energy gap is occupying column inches in our daily newspapers. With aging power stations being taken offline and not replaced by new generating capacity, there have been repeated warnings that the country is facing a supply crunch and leaving itself vulnerable to blackouts. The prospect of the lights going out has been raised once again by The Daily Telegraph and The Times today, although in the case of the latter it was in the context of the ongoing debate about whether Britain should remain in the European Union.

The paper reports that Penelope Warne, head of energy at law firm CMS Cameron McKenna (and no relation to this writer I might add), has said that a Brexit could heighten the risk of blackouts as the UK is growing ever more dependent on imported gas and power from the continent. According to the piece, the UK currently receives as much as 4GW of electricity via interconnectors spanning the English Channel and Irish Sea, which represents around 7 per cent of national peak electricity demand. Warne’s central argument is essentially that if Britain finds itself in a situation where everyone in Europe needs power and/or gas at the same time, during a particularly cold winter for example, then the UK might find itself at the end of the queue for electricity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly her comments have been dismissed by Vote Leave – the campaign group seeking to take Britain out of the European Union. But they have also been refuted by Dominic Whittome, an energy consultant with Mainline Energy, who was quoted in the same article as saying: “These are legally binding supply contracts and there is no reason why there should be any change if Britain left the EU.” Regardless of whether the UK chooses to stay or leave the European Union, what is clear is that the country faces a very real challenge ensuring that it has a sufficiently large and reliable enough energy supply to avert the danger of blackouts.

Last year, it was revealed that the Government would grant hundreds of millions of pounds in subsidies to operators of back-up diesel generators in a bid to try and guarantee security of supply. The move may well reduce the likelihood that families will be reaching for the candles and matches any time soon but, as environmental campaigners pointed out at the time, it does not help the country meet its all-important climate change targets.

So the Government faces a dilemma, how does it provide a stable and secure energy supply while simultaneously fulfilling its obligations under the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act? In fact, given the emphasis the incumbent Conservative Government has placed on cost and affordability for consumers that dilemma is better characterised as a trilemma.

Back-up diesel generators might tick two of the three boxes – they are tried and tested and can be relied upon to produce energy at an acceptable price, but the consensus is they are highly polluting as they emit vast quantities of both greenhouse gases and ultrafine particulates which are known to be injurious to human health. The subsidies for them could also add up to £10 a year to consumer bills so they do not come as cheap as you might think.

One possible alternative to diesel generators is hydrogen fuel cells. Intelligent Energy, a world leader in the technology and a client of H+K, has already demonstrated that fuel cells can usurp dirty diesel generators and provide clean, reliable electricity in their place. The company is perhaps best known for developing a fuel cell powered prototype of an iPhone whose battery life can last for up to a week. But Intelligent Energy also hit the headlines after signing a £1.2 billion deal last year to replace back-up diesel units at almost 27,500 telecoms towers across India with hydrogen fuel cells. The breakthrough green energy project, which will run for ten years and does not depend on public subsidies, has saved more than 55 tons of CO2 emissions in its first few months of operation, which is the equivalent of not burning 60,000 pounds of coal.

Intelligent Energy points out that by deploying such a large number of fuel cells as part of its India deal and by developing the technology across a range of sectors – consumer electronics, automotive, and distributed power and generation – economies of scale will bring the costs down significantly, making it an affordable source of energy. For that reason, hydrogen fuel cells might just be the best placed technology to keep the UK’s lights on in future.

Chris Warne

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search