Hydrogen and the transition to net zero: a Q&A with Johannes Hollenhorst

Johannes Hollenhorst is a research student in the Department of Sociology

Hydrogen is now counted on by many in the energy, chemical, or steel industries to decarbonise processes which have historically emitted a lot of greenhouse gases.
Johannes Hollenhorst 747 x 560
Johannes Hollenhorst

What are you currently researching?

I am researching how hydrogen is becoming one of the key materials for the transition to net zero. Decarbonisation is one of the biggest challenges for societies in the 21st century due to the emergence of climate change.

Hydrogen is now counted on by many in the energy, chemical, or steel industries to decarbonise processes which have historically emitted a lot of greenhouse gases.

To understand how this transition from hydrocarbons to hydrogen unfolds in practice, I conducted fieldwork in Aberdeen in Northeast Scotland where large parts of the British oil and gas industry are concentrated. Even though the industry was in full swing back then, the local council had already started working on hydrogen projects back in the early 2010s to start diversifying the local economy towards other forms of energy.

Through interviews and participant observation, I was able to identify several points of conflict in the planning and deployment of hydrogen infrastructures in Aberdeen but also learned how collaborative political and economic approaches were and are used as attempts to overcome these conflicts.

Why did you choose this area of study?

Already as a teenager, I was fascinated by the idea of the Green New Deal. In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, acting on climate change while contributing to economic recovery made a lot of sense to me.

At the same time, I realised that social change is regularly the toughest part in responding to climate change and oftentimes prevents decisive political and economic action. While this problem is currently regularly addressed as a question of technology acceptance, I do not think this is enough.

The sociological point of view is rather that we must start from social differences at the intersections of class, race, gender, and place to ask how different groups of people stand to gain or loose from the transition to net zero. When we take these social differences into close consideration when planning and deploying green technologies and infrastructures, we are in a better position to achieve what is oftentimes referred to as a “just transition”.

How will your research have a wider impact on society? Can you give some real-world examples of the impact your research will have?

My research raises awareness of the social implications of the current ways of developing and deploying hydrogen infrastructures and points to ways in which the transition could be done in more socio-ecologically just ways.

To turn this into practice myself and provide a real-world example, I am currently working with Prof Alison Hester and Dr Annabel Pinker from the James Hutton Institute and Alex Gauntt from the start-up Water to Water as part of a Knowledge Exchange and Impact (KEI) funded project. We seek to facilitate collaboration between Scottish farmers and the Scottish community energy sector to create the political and economic basis for a decentralised green hydrogen production and transport network.

What have been the highlights of your research work so far?

Becoming involved in the HydroGlen project, a pilot project for decentralised green hydrogen production in Aberdeenshire. It all started with two research interviews and spiralled into a long-term collaboration which will hopefully grow in the future.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Every step of the PhD comes with its own challenges but the biggest when doing fieldwork is to “gain entrée” and I certainly felt this way, too. It confronted me with my own strengths and weaknesses and that is always hard to deal with but also exceptionally rewarding.

What advice would you give to prospective students on the most effective way to approach research and keep stress levels down?

Limit yourself as much as possible to the key problem you want to address and set yourself a series of well-defined milestones to keep yourself focused on what is relevant in the here and now.

In a few words, what is the best thing about studying at LSE?

The global community of keenly interested people from various backgrounds. And the Squash courts in the basement of the Marshall Building.