“It is the most universal element in the world, but hydrogen won’t be universal in its use,” says Paul McCormack, innovation manager at Belfast Metropolitan College and program manager at GenComm, a project that aims to validate, both financially and technically, the maturity of hydrogen technologies.
“Rather, each country will have to develop its own hydrogen typography based on their own energy needs and opportunities.”
We sat down with Paul to discuss the green hydrogen transition, the need for local hydrogen solutions, and GenComm—or “GENerating energy secure COMMunities through Smart Renewable Hydrogen”, to give it its full name.
GenComm is currently working to implement three pilot plants in northwest Europe, that will link three major renewable energy sources — namely solar, wind, and bioenergy — with energy storage and energetic demand—heat, power, and transportation. One plant in Northern Ireland will use wind energy to generate hydrogen for fuel cell buses. In the Scottish islands, biomass will generate fuel for transport and power for industry. And in Germany, a solar-powered refuelling station will provide hydrogen for passenger cars.
Image 1: GenComm Smart H2 Generation & Consumption Overview
It’s this diversity of hydrogen production and use that Paul refers to when he says that hydrogen cannot provide a single, universal solution across all contexts.
“Fossil fuels are generally a single fit for everyone,” he says. “But a hydrogen system has to be different across countries. At root, using green hydrogen means integrating more renewable energy into the supply chain and thinking about how to optimise hydrogen in the energy mix. That solution can’t be one-size-fits-all, but what we are showing with GenComm is that a variety of solutions are possible.”
However, Paul tells us, changing the energy mix and reaching those different hydrogen solutions won’t happen in a single step. “That’s fine at first,” he says, “as long as we do use less-polluting fuels and take small steps toward green hydrogen. Hydrogen puts us on the right path. But the real question is, how can we pivot business to green hydrogen solutions?”
For Paul, things aren’t as simple as having businesses and societies abruptly turn away from fossil fuels. That, he says, would spike energy prices in the way that we saw at the end of 2021. Instead, he suggests we need a slow transition, to minimise the economic shock and lessen the potential negative impacts for everyone.”
To this end, Paul suggests a highly collaborative approach to driving hydrogen adoption.
“We’ll need to work in tandem with industry — and we’ll need to work both with existing and new industries to upscale green solutions and rescale existing polluting ones. But we also need to work across nations too—because if we can share concepts, we can share opportunities.”
That brings us round to the work on which GenComm focuses: energy secure communities.
“Communities are really the end users of the energy grid,” Paul explains, “and energy security is the foundation stone for secure communities. If the aim is to build a stable society into the future, energy security is a priority.”
That’s why Paul insists on making nations ensure that they are energy self-sufficient. Just because it is cheaper to import fuel, it doesn’t mean that the resulting energy dependence is a good thing. Instead, energy should be produced locally, Paul affirms—to create new jobs, new opportunities, and new positive impacts. At the same time, every country should have the support to make this happen.
Yet it doesn’t all need to be hydrogen. Instead, in Paul’s words, the ideal scenario is “a broad menu” of energy opportunities based on local capabilities — and one that doesn’t rob the planet of its natural resources.
But what can be done to make the transition a reality?
Start with “regulating, repurposing, redirecting”, Paul says. Rather than building from scratch, we can use some of the existing assets that would otherwise go to waste. Oil tankers can be used for ammonia, oil pipelines for hydrogen transport. In fact, everything we use today needs to be modernised for a greener economy. And GenComm are helping to drive the technology to make that happen.