Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.
As we approach COP26, the Government has been firm in its commitment to lead the world in decarbonising our economy and to see Britain become a pioneer in a new green industrial revolution. From powering Britain’s chemical industry to keeping our homes warm, these laudable aspirations mean big challenges on the ground.
As the Tees Valley Mayor, I see all around the amazing technological advances we are making which will make this possible, but I’m also acutely aware of how pressed many hard-working families already are by rising energy prices.
There is increasing anxiety about the cost of Net Zero. As Daniel Hannan has also emphasised on this website, the climate challenge needs to be tackled not with millenarian self-indulgence but with practical, level-headed, down-to-earth solutions.
Though some on the Left may think otherwise, the Treasury’s coffers are not bottomless. Jacob Young, Redcar’s MP, was right to recently warn on ConservativeHome that green policies needed to be affordable for ordinary people, and that’s true whether the burden falls on people through taxation or through rising living costs.
In Teesside, there’s nothing we do better than practical solutions. For years, Labour politicians have instead tried to drag us down the road of griping self-indulgently in the hope of a few more handouts, without offering real answers. Since my election in 2017 I’ve worked hard to reverse this and unleash the true spirit of Teesside.
Now, Teesside is tackling challenges and seizing the day, from manufacturing vaccines in Billingham to being the first part of the country to welcome e-scooter trials, bringing many people a flexible, affordable, and Covid-regulation compliant commuting option. And I believe our biggest contributions on the horizon are going to be the ones which will make Net Zero affordable and even profitable for Britain.
The Government is soon going to publish its Heat and Buildings Strategy, which will attract a lot of attention – rightly so, because it will lay out the Government’s approach to affordably achieving significant efficiencies in heating our homes. Less widely anticipated are the detailed guidelines for the Government’s hydrogen village trials, but these will be essential in actually delivering on more widely-quoted aspirates for homes powered through green technology.
Customer choice is essential in domestic energy, as in most areas of life. However, many fashionable options for designer homes won’t work for many ordinary people. In terraced streets or in blocks of flats, electric heat pumps are a non-starter. Many electric technologies may struggle to give elderly people the quick and powerful heating which is needed to keep people not just comfortable but safe in much of the North in winter. In many cases, only hydrogen can effectively overcome the difficulties. Making hydrogen work as a real alternative for natural gas is imperative.
There have been a variety of tests of hydrogen technology in homes, but these have been limited to proving that hydrogen is fundamentally safe, and that it could run safely through its own new and expensive pipe network. What we now need to prove is that the existing network can be very affordably repurposed to safely deliver gas to all the different kinds of homes people want to continue to live in, with minimal disruption and reversible technology.
Scientists and engineers in my region are working on some amazing plans to deliver this. Wedded to assumptions about electric heating developed in Whitehall many years ago and long since overtaken by cutting-edge research, some in government still work on the basis that hydrogen must be outlandishly expensive because of a need to replace all the gas pipes in the country. In Teesside, we can prove that these fears are unfounded and that hydrogen really can be the solution we all need.
The time for tinkering trials has come to an end. Achieving hydrogen heat for the nation is worth investing in, and I am urging the Government to ensure that we secure the right level of participation in these trials by subsidising participants’ bills.
We can’t test the affordability of this technology if ordinary people are put off from joining the trial by the risk of costs for new hobs, potential short-term heating bill increases, and reversing any trial technology if it proves necessary. We also need to be looking to scale up the planned hydrogen village to a hydrogen town at a much faster pace than over-cautious bureaucrats are planning.
In a sense, hydrogen heating is a back to the future technology – Britain’s houses were heated by hydrogen until North Sea gas was found and took over the network within many of our lifetimes. To that extent, we are looking at tried and tested British technology which just needs to be honed to ensure it’s safer than ever and genuinely affordable for ordinary people today.
But the development of blue hydrogen and green hydrogen is what is putting hydrogen back on the energy map. Making green energy for homes affordable isn’t just about pipes and boilers but about the supply of hydrogen. Again, my part of the country has the answers we need.
Teesside already produces more than half of the UK’s hydrogen. The pioneering Carbon Capture technology of Net Zero Teesside will create the clean blue hydrogen which ought to be a big part of the Government’s plans to affordably bridge our energy transition – blue hydrogen needs to be incorporated in as many trials as possible and ministers make sure that it is consistently backed.
We’re also doing outstanding research into green hydrogen, whose production can become increasingly affordable. Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool are key to making hydrogen supply affordable. Achieving critical mass in this technology is also crucial to securing the future of Britain’s chemical industry, so much of which is based in my region.
What is even more exciting is that, by leading the way in hydrogen technology, Britain can set itself up to export our green technological revolution to the world, just as we exported the technology of the first industrial revolution across the Earth.
This kind of technology can be a significant part of Global Britain’s international trade offering, securing prosperity and a better quality of life for our people. But to position ourselves to achieve this, first we have to get the basics right. Little is more basically essential than securing an affordable power supply for British homes, and I will do all I can to help our government to make the future-proofed choices and the investments that can achieve this.