Hydrogen Economies: Following the Leader

Follow the leader It’s nice news when whole countries – even small ones – aspire to go over wholesale to hydrogen power. If they get there, will that make them world leaders – or exotic laboratories?

Published: 07-Aug-2003

N class=maincopytext>What if Vanuatu became a hydrogen-based energy economy by 2020? It may not be a question you have yet asked yourself, but a couple of years ago the Pacific island nation declared this to be its aim, which was, at the least, a good illustration of joined-up thinking. Vanuatu does have the basic wherewithal to produce real ‘green’ hydrogen – abundant sun, wind, and attractive potential in geothermal energy. It also currently suffers some of the downsides of oil-based energy – including an expensive dependence on imports. What’s more, several Pacific states have good reason to be especially concerned about climate change, whose consequences could see them submerged entirely beneath rising seas.

The UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific set up a special programme in 2000 to help small island developing countries ‘go renewable’, and Vanuatu was the first to respond. Now the Pacific, let’s be honest, does have its attractions for consultants keen on an exotic location for a nice fat feasibility study. What’s more, if Vanuatu could make itself into something of a laboratory for hydrogen technologies, it might attract some interesting research and development investment. There could even be a techie sales pitch in it for the tourist industry. But, to be blunt, it seems unlikely that Vanuatu could ever provide much of a policy blueprint for the ‘decarbing’ of major economies, the dethroning of fossil fuels in a ‘hydrogen revolution’.

Much of the above applies to another island, nearer home – Islay, off the west coast of Scotland. The buzz surrounding the pioneering work on wave energy there [see p4] has encouraged the idea that it, too, could be in the hunt to be ‘the world’s first hydrogen-powered island’. Green electricity from the waves would drive electrolysers to extract hydrogen from water, and this hydrogen, according to the ‘green Islay’ visionaries, would in turn power fuel cells whereby local inhabitants could run everything from tumble dryers to tractors. It’s a neat little virtuous circle, which also serves to stress the potential of the fuel cell both for vehicles and for offgrid domestic power.

So is the holy grail of the hydrogen economy best sought at the micro level? That might make it more simple to grasp – but far less potent.

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