Alyn Smith explains how Aberdeen is leading the way and making the energy transition from oil to hydrogen.
Published by the Parliament Magazine on 5th December 2013
Before the first barrels of oil came ashore in 1975, Aberdeen was struggling with a falling population, high unemployment, and was home to mainly traditional industries such as fishing, farming and textiles. With the discovery of vast oil fields in the North Sea, the city suddenly became the epicentre of multinational investment, cutting-edge engineering projects, and thousands of new oil workers and their families. Oil brought great wealth to the city, but the effects were not all good for ordinary Aberdonians. Non-oil-related industries could not match the wage increases of oil companies and so, for thousands of families, living standards began to slip. There was also an acute shortage of affordable housing. Worst still, the enormous profits from 'black gold' were pumped straight into a UK government bank account 400 miles away before anyone in Aberdeen or Scotland saw so much as a penny of it.
Forty years later, the city is taking control in the next stage of its energy revolution which will bring the benefits of being Europe's energy capital directly into the hands of ordinary Aberdonians - and this time built around a clean and locally produced energy source - hydrogen. The first step in the city's inspiring new hydrogen strategy will be the appearance of Europe's largest fleet of hydrogen-powered buses, costing €20m and partially funded by the European Union. Other ideas being explored include the use of hydrogen in the city's district heating system and the injection of hydrogen into the gas grid.
All of this is possible because Aberdeen is in the unique position of having a ready-made infrastructure of finance, technological expertise and the global reputation that makes it the best city in Europe to spearhead this kind of energy innovation. Although many of these facilities may currently be geared towards oil and gas extraction, they nonetheless represent a pre-existing network of support facilities that can be easily re-employed in the development of a hydrogen economy. Like the hydrogen itself, the city's energy infrastructure is renewable.
If the city's industrial set-up is reusable for the hydrogen sector, then so too is the network of connections that Aberdeen has made over the years with other coastal cities all across the North Sea region thanks to its oil and gas production. In recognition of this, Aberdeen has been chosen to lead the Hydrogen transport economy for the North Sea region (or HyTrEc, as it is known in Brussels) - a project that is supported and financed by the EU regional development fund - which will see the city cooperate with several other cities across the North Sea region in Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Germany to share expertise in hydrogen-powered transport. It is a shining example of how a city can seek recognition across Europe for its expertise simply by being proactive in the European arena.
That is why it was such a pleasure for me to host the Brussels launch of Aberdeen's hydrogen strategy, and to meet with senior members of the city council and the European commission to discuss this exciting development and cement relations between Europe's energy and political capitals. Aberdeen is becoming a microcosm of Scotland's energy portfolio, with vast oil wealth on the one hand and tremendous renewable energy potential on the other. I believe our generation has a responsibility to take full advantage of that and to make sure it is the people of Aberdeen and of Scotland that reap the rewards. In days gone by the citizens of Aberdeen have not always been the direct beneficiaries of the industry that their city has played host to. It is when we see this new fleet of hydrogen buses go shuttling up and down the main street of Aberdeen that we can rest assured that the energy revolution has finally been brought onshore.
Alyn Smith is a member of parliament's industry, research and energy committee.