Applying the Moonshot approach to developing a clean hydrogen economy
It is sixty years this September since US President John F Kennedy gave his famous Rice Stadium speech that fired the starting gun on NASA’s Apollo programme with the words: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…… because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
The scale of the challenge that Kennedy set for his nation cannot be understated. As he pointed out, many of the technologies and materials needed to land a man on the Moon that decade, and return safely to Earth, still had to be developed.
As the global glow of the recent COP26 conference in Glasgow subsides, the parallels with today’s challenge to turn the tide of climate change over the next decade are striking. Like the Moon landing, it is a challenge that appears impossible, has global consequences and that, as Kennedy put it, we must be willing to accept and unwilling to postpone.
Hydrogen: the element driving new energy thinking
It is increasingly clear that hydrogen will play a major role in decarbonising our energy system. Put simply, hydrogen will become central to how we store and transport that energy at scale, creating the kind of fuel flexibility and density that we currently prize from fossil fuels. It won’t be the single, stand-alone solution but one that helps to bring practical and economic sense to our net-zero ambition.
The reality is that the global demand for energy will continue to grow. Decarbonising energy supply means embracing a range of renewable power sources including wind, solar, tidal and nuclear as we electrify our economies.
Hydrogen’s practical and economic potential cannot be understated as the energy mix moves away from fossil fuels. The inherent intermittency of solar and wind generation and the inflexibility of nuclear generation present challenges that hydrogen production can solve through effective use of surplus electrical power.
Locations rich in renewable resources but distant from demand centres can produce hydrogen instead of electricity. Shipping, heavy road haulage and aviation can use hydrogen as a primary fuel where direct electrification is not feasible.
Hydrogen hubs as the engine room of change
Carbon neutral hydrogen production is, of course, the only long-term sustainable way to fuel the hydrogen economy. For this, we need large scale renewable energy investments integrated into zero-carbon green hydrogen production, or the nuclear-powered pink hydrogen equivalent.
In the short term, producing low-carbon blue hydrogen from the steam reformation of methane, combined with carbon capture and storage, provides an alternative solution to industrial-scale hydrogen production.
Hydrogen hubs, bringing together government, business, academia and local communities on a regional basis around industrial centres, lie at the heart of the acceleration and commercialisation of the hydrogen economy.
They are the game changers, channelling public and private sector investment in a collaborative endeavour to develop and test solutions, and to drive industrial-scale hydrogen production and usage, while respecting local communities and nature.
The transition has already started
The good news is that hydrogen hubs are being established as part of national hydrogen strategies across all continents, providing a rich and diverse environment for technical, social and economic solutions to be generated. For example, hydrogen hubs have been set up in the established industrial clusters; South Africa has established the Hydrogen Valley hub running from the Limpopo to Johannesburg industrial corridor to Durban; the Australian government is sponsoring seven hydrogen hubs across the country.
Equally good news is the emergence of collaborations both at hub level, for example between South Africa’s Hydrogen Valley and North East England’s Tees Valley hydrogen hub, as well as country level, for example between the UK and UAE.
We are also seeing large scale moves by corporates and governments to develop industrial-scale hydrogen facilities. Fortescue Future Industries is developing a global portfolio to support its target of producing 15MT/yr of green hydrogen by 2030.
There are firm plans established in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman to produce green and/or blue hydrogen at an industrial scale, and oil and gas majors including BP, Shell and Chevron have hydrogen as a core part of their decarbonisation strategies.
Lessons from the Moonshot
The Moonshot was a loosely coordinated grouping of projects and support functions within NASA until in 1963 George Mueller created and ran the Office of Manned Space Flight under a single programme structure. Our current endeavour to develop clean hydrogen as a vital element of global decarbonisation needs to be addressed on the same programmatic basis.
Unlike the Apollo programme, establishing hydrogen as a vital element in the decarbonisation journey is not a single nation endeavour. And while this time we have the ability to harness the efforts and resources of the whole world rather than just a single nation, if we are to combat climate change, we need to establish the guiding mind – the NASA equivalent – to really drive the programme and keep us on track.
But who will perform the NASA role? This is likely to be a private-public body capable of enabling multi agencies to work, together with the right level of funding and expertise on hand to demonstrate the economics and develop the technology.
NASA’s success was also down to its relentless pursuit of a clear end vision - one that embraced innovation, pilot projects, with a plan-do-review attitude, feeding in new ideas gradually and in a controlled manner.
COP26 – the end of the beginning
The United States delivered the moon landing within seven years of JFK’s speech. We have nine years to get into shape to fix the climate.
COP 26 was just a step along the way – the end of the beginning; COP27 must be the next step in moving away from fossil fuel dependence towards a new world of clean, sustainable and efficient power for our transport, industry and domestic futures.
Success will see us build on the COP26 consensus so that global governments feel free to share learning and innovation, guided by a clear programme management approach that builds market capacity through accelerated deployment of pilots and at scale testing.
This is not a single nation problem; we need the world to be inspired to collaborate to meet future energy needs and the climate change challenge.
The key to success is to dissolve barriers to collaboration between companies and nations to get people working as part of a coordinated global programme with a NASA-style guiding mind supported by a thousand leaders from all parts of the world making the difference to global decarbonisation as George Mueller did to the moon landing programme.
In his Rice Stadium speech, Kennedy said the conquest of space deserved “the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again”. Can we now agree the same about our collective challenge to address climate change, treating 2021 and COP26 as the end of the beginning, and 2022 as the year we started to take bold collective action?