Public perceptions of low-carbon hydrogen

06 Jan 2022

By Emily Cox & Steve Westlake, Cardiff University

Increasingly, low-carbon hydrogen is being positioned as fundamental to the UK’s net zero transition. In particular, there are hopes that hydrogen could play an important role in decarbonising heat for residential and industrial sites. The UK net zero strategy states the ambition for 5GW low-carbon hydrogen capacity by 2030. The majority of this is likely to be so-called ‘blue’ hydrogen – hydrogen produced using gas, with storage or usage (CCUS) of the resulting CO2. However, there is also a pledge for up to £100m of Government funding for hydrogen produced using electrolysis. This so-called ‘green hydrogen’ would be zero-carbon if produced using decarbonised electricity. A number of demo projects are named in the UK hydrogen strategy.

Understanding public attitudes is vital for the ethical and effective deployment of new technologies. This blog reports results from some research we conducted on public perceptions of hydrogen produced using electrolysis with renewable energy. Much of the of existing work on public perceptions of hydrogen focuses on the end uses – for instance, whether people would be happy using hydrogen for cooking and heating in their homes, or for fuelling their cars. Yet for hydrogen to play a major role in the net zero transition, it will also require investment in large production facilities, which may encounter public support or opposition. We therefore looked at the full ‘chain’ of green hydrogen deployment, including production, transport, storage, and end use.

Our data was collected as part of a separate project on the impacts of the fracking controversy on public perceptions of other technologies, funded by NERC as part of the ‘UK Unconventional Hydrocarbons’ flexible fund. Most of our data on perceptions of green hydrogen are not being used for that project so, not wanting to let good data go to waste, we report it here, in the hope that it can contribute to the understanding of public perceptions of green hydrogen in the UK.


We conducted a representative survey of UK publics (n=464) plus two online focus groups with participants in South Wales. We recruited our survey sample using Prolific, who we highly recommend: our survey responses were high-quality and the pricing structure is reasonable and flexible (handy for early career researchers on a limited budget!). Focus group participants were recruited using social media. We aimed for a balance of age, gender, ethnicity, and urban/rural demographics.

In both the survey and focus groups, participants viewed a vignette describing hydrogen production from electrolysis, plus its transport, storage, and end uses. Survey participants then answered a question “Do you support or oppose hydrogen as an energy source to be used in the UK?” on a 7-point scale from strongly oppose to strongly support, plus an open-ended question asking them to explain the reasons for their response. Focus group participants spent 20 minutes discussing how they felt about this form of hydrogen, based on the information they’d viewed and their existing knowledge. (For reasons relating to the broader project, we did not include information on hydrogen storage underground, which may become an important component of future hydrogen systems.)

Men and high-income groups more strongly in favour

Survey responses were coded from -3 (strongly oppose) to +3 (strongly support). The average score was 0.81, showing some support. However, within this, there was a lot of variability. Figure 1 shows the mean scores by gender and by income; the dotted line shows the sample mean. All groups were somewhat supportive of green hydrogen, with no mean scores falling below 0; however, men and high-income groups were generally much more supportive. Men scored hydrogen more positively (Mean=1.11, Standard Error=0.09) than women (M=0.55, SE=0.09). An independent-samples t-test showed that this difference was significant as t(459)=-4.02, p=<0.001, 95% CI [-0.84, -0.29]. A one-way ANOVA showed that the difference between income brackets was also significant as F(5,458)=3.457, p=0.004.

Young lefties are also keen

In the survey, we also asked people which political party they were most likely to support, with 10 options reflecting the large number of parties in the UK. For ease of analysis, we grouped these into ‘left-of-centre’ (Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, Green, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru) and ‘right-of-centre’ (Conservative, UKIP, BNP, DUP). Those on the left had the highest support with a mean of 0.97; those who would not vote had the lowest with a mean of 0.3 (figure 2).

When it came to age, the youngest age group had the highest support for hydrogen, as we might expect from research showing that younger people are often more supportive of new and emerging technologies. Interestingly though, older people also appeared more supportive, whereas those in the middle (aged 35 to 54) rated green hydrogen lower than the sample mean (figure 3).

Blimps and bombs

We also asked our survey participants to explain the reasons for their support or opposition to hydrogen in an open-ended response. The most frequently mentioned words are shown in Table 1. Concerns around hydrogen were often related to safety and the explosive nature of the gas, e.g. “It is dangerous to store and is flammable” and “It is highly flammable and not easy to store. This means that it is very dangerous.” Information on the potential risks of hydrogen had been provided in the vignette, including flammability and storage, so these responses were not entirely ‘spontaneous’.

The qualitative discussions in the focus groups helped us to understand people’s attitudes in more depth. Similarly to the survey, the main concerns related to safety, linked to the explosive nature of the gas: “For the hydrogen, I just think of a blimp straightaway and all the fires back in the day, those huge great big airships and how unsafe hydrogen was at that time”. This risk was related to the transport of the hydrogen as well as its use. Others mentioned the association with the H bomb, saying that hydrogen has a “PR problem” because of this: “There’s not many things you walk around with where you can say, that’s got a bomb associated with it. Almost sort of a primeval feeling about hydrogen is that it blows things up”.

Cost, equity, and the environment

Another major concern about green hydrogen was cost. In particular, our participants pointed out the energy poverty which exists in some of their communities in South Wales, noting that new technologies are often unaffordable for many. One participant argued that hydrogen fuel cells in vehicles “died a death” due to high costs.

Energy requirements were also a concern, particularly if one form of energy is used to produce another: “It sounds very energy-heavy to produce. I can’t understand why it would be better to produce hydrogen to burn as gas in homes than it would be to just use the electricity directly and cook off electric”. However, others saw benefits arising from compatibility with our current infrastructure: “Hydrogen seems to be a very straightforward way of replacing fossil gas, which for most of us in the UK are connected to the gas main for heating, and decarbonisation of heating has proven very difficult to do”.

The environment was very important to our focus group participants. In some cases, green hydrogen was viewed positively as a renewable form of energy and as a potential “interim” solution whilst transitioning away from fossil fuels. One of our youngest participants argued that his generation is generally “positive about anything that’s better for the environment”, supporting the age-related survey responses in figure 3. However, not all participants viewed green hydrogen as environmentally beneficial, for instance raising concerns about scale, energy and water requirements: “[Hydrogen] would be absolutely massive… I think what I’d like to see is something that’s a little bit more in tune with the environment, not us assaulting the environment to… to be able to use our microwave.”.

Concerns are not insurmountable

Despite concerns about safety, energy requirements, and cost, generally speaking our participants were keen for more information and reassurances about certain specific aspects of hydrogen. Safety concerns were not seen as insurmountable – participants sought “safety reassurances”, indicating a potentially high level of trust in the ability of experts and regulators to understand and mitigate the risks. Participants in both focus groups noted that other, more familiar forms of energy are also potentially dangerous, or at least were in the past: “Safety-wise, I guess that’s definitely something that would have to be sorted, but on the other hand nuclear power is very dangerous, combustion engines are dangerous… so I don’t think that would put me off as long as it was properly dealt with”. Another participant stated: “it’s interesting that people mention the safety, I think it’s because it’s something new and unfamiliar. People forget, I’ve got a gas boiler so I’m already piping at pressure a highly explosive gas into my house anyway… because we’re familiar”.

Some of our participants were more sceptical than others; for the most part though, these participants still said they wanted to see more research, even from big companies – “We just have to try it”. Trust was not as fundamental to the discussions as we had expected, although many felt that the UK government was untrustworthy due to its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the word “spin” cropping up a lot. Local concerns were very important, particularly in terms of distributional benefits for local communities, and we found a strong discourse about ‘the right technology in the right place’. The potentially distributed nature of the hydrogen resource was seen as a positive: “I can see big opportunities for Wales to get involved in this kind of renewable energy because, although we might not necessarily have all the fossil fuels, we would potentially have the renewable energy to be able to source this [i.e. green hydrogen]”. Another participant agreed, and said that the high water requirements could actually benefit some locations with plenty of water resource.

When asked directly how they would feel about a hydrogen electrolysis production facility being placed near their community, most participants responded with a sense of conditional acceptance, and argued that the distributional aspects of the project are vital for ensuring local support: “I’m personally okay with it… It would be useful to know that there’s some kind of community payback. Often, we’ve seen with fossil extraction and other things, a corporate entity comes in, takes all the wealth out of your community. So as long as there was a more equitable trade-off there. I think that’s one of the reasons people object with wind turbines, the people who have to live with them often don’t see any benefit, and I think that might well be the same with hydrogen production and storage”.


We found that the idea of ‘green hydrogen’ using electrolysis is generally perceived fairly positively by UK publics. However, there are major differences between different types of citizen, with men and high-income groups responding much more positively. Indeed, high-income males tend to be more supportive of new energy technologies, and we need to be aware of this when proposing strategies for the energy transition, because experts and policy-makers also tend to be male and higher-income. Unsurprisingly, safety and cost were the main concerns; yet our focus groups suggested that these are not seen as insurmountable, with high support for anything deemed to be beneficial for the environment, but with conditions attached relating to distributional benefits for local communities.

About the author

Dr Emily Cox is a UKERC researcher and a researcher in environmental policy and social psychology at the University of Cardiff. Steve Westlake is a PhD researcher at Cardiff University, exploring how leading by example can influence behaviours and attitudes towards climate change.