Lucy Craven, Head of corporate affairs at London City Airport and member of the Green Hydrogen Alliance
This year marks the 120th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight. Fast forward to today and the UK aviation industry is the largest in Europe and worth £22 billion to our national economy. The sector is faced with a completely different challenge – decarbonisation. In the short-term that means bringing more sustainable fuels to market, while also accelerating the development and commercialisation of zero-emission flights.
Green hydrogen is a particular technology that has enormous potential for the future of sustainable aviation and transport in general. It releases no direct carbon emissions and is produced using renewable electricity. It has the potential to power zero-emission planes, buses, HGVs and our maritime industry.
Green hydrogen production is being championed by the Government and Labour and it is of particular interest to us at London City Airport. The reason is that according to new research by the Green Hydrogen Alliance, the Thames Estuary could be an ideal location for a ‘green hydrogen’ hub. The development of a green hydrogen facility in East London could transform the local economy.
The study found that a single 300MW green hydrogen production plant in the Thames Estuary could generate £3.5 billion for the regional economy. The plant would create hundreds of jobs on-site, as well as thousands more indirectly through supply chains. More than just economic growth and jobs, there would also be real benefits to local communities and the environment. The study found that this single plant could cut carbon emissions by 578,000 tonnes a year, the equivalent to removing 20,000 diesel trucks from London’s roads every year. London buses and short-haul flights could all be powered by this zero-emission fuel.
Last year, Project NAPKIN – a UK aviation consortium consisting of three airports, three manufacturers and three universities – found that within the next 20 years, all UK domestic flights could be on zero-emission hydrogen-fuelled flights. London City Airport’s short-haul route network is an ideal test bed to lead the way on zero-emission flights in the future.
However, one of the challenges to using green hydrogen is the cost.
In east London and along the Thames Estuary there are multiple sectors that could use this fuel from shipping, to logistics, aviation, road transport and heavy industry. A green hydrogen hub in the area could pool this demand and get to scale more quickly, helping address some of the cost challenge.
London City Airport was founded in a similar pioneering spirit to the Wright brothers: in 1982 Captain Harry Gee landed his plane in the middle of Heron Quays (next to, what is now, Canary Wharf) to prove that such a short take-off and landing on the dock was possible – a feat which many said was impossible. Within five years of Gee proving that it could be done, City Airport opened and saw a new era of regeneration in east London.
We’re now at the beginning of another era of innovation with zero-emission flight, thanks to green hydrogen. The technology is here. We have our Captain Harry Gee, but we just need the money. That money could be public or private investment, or a combination of both, but it needs to be investable. The private sector needs more certainty on their investment. We’re in a global race for more sustainable fuels and there is a significant opportunity here for London and the UK, we just need to seize it.