FPS waal

RHC highlights key measures needed to unleash investor confidence in hydrogen-powered vessels

In the race to achieve net-zero emissions, the maritime sector is turning its attention to hydrogen fuel as a potential game-changer.

FPS Waal. Source: Holland Shipyards Group

Hydrogen has uses as a direct fuel in both gaseous or potentially liquid form, and also as a feedstock for liquid hydrogen carriers such as ammonia or methanol.

However, the road from a design concept to implementation is often not straightforward due, among other things, numerous regulatory hurdles that are delaying progress in this field.

The UK’s Regulatory Horizons Council (RHC), an expert committee sponsored by the Department of Science, Innovation, and Technology (DSIT), has released a new report shedding light on the regulatory reforms necessary to foster the responsible uptake of hydrogen fuel technology in maritime vessels operating in UK territorial waters.

“The RHC learned that the technology to enable hydrogen fuel production and its use as a fuel for propulsion in maritime vessels was comparatively well developed. However, the lack of alignment between stakeholders and regulators and, in some cases, lack of regulatory guidance for innovators, combine to threaten the UK’s ability to play a leading role in ship and technology-related design and
manufacture, with benefits to the UK economy,”
the council said.

“The RHC believes that now is the opportune moment to ensure that appropriate regulatory systems are in place to capitalise on the growth opportunities associated with hydrogen-vessel supply chains.”

The report, compiled after extensive consultation with maritime industry stakeholders, reveals that despite increasing interest in hydrogen fuel, there are significant commercial and regulatory barriers hindering its widespread deployment. To overcome these hurdles and capitalize on the growth opportunities associated with hydrogen vessel supply chains, the report outlines key recommendations aimed at fostering a more agile and proportionate regulatory framework.

One of the primary challenges identified by the RHC is the lack of alignment between stakeholders and regulators, leading to uncertainty and delays in the approval of hydrogen ship designs. This issue stems from the absence of a common approach for evaluating risks and complying with regulations among engineering consultancies, class societies, and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

Furthermore, MCA has been criticized my project developers for causing delays amid an ‘overly cautious’ approach to regulation due to its conservative approaches.


To tackle this challenge, the RHC recommends appointing class societies as ‘Approved Bodies’ (ABs) for vessel design evaluation, accelerating the approvals of zero-carbon and novel vessel designs. This move would streamline the approval process and facilitate the development of hydrogen-propelled vessels by shipbuilders.

Furthermore, the report highlights the need for specialized guidance for the designs of hydrogen propulsion vessels. Clear and comprehensive guidance would provide shipbuilders and innovators with the necessary clarity to navigate the regulatory landscape effectively, thus promoting the adoption of hydrogen fuel in the maritime sector.

Addressing the lack of port infrastructure to support hydrogen vessels is another critical aspect emphasized by the report. Currently, many port operators lack the incentive to invest in zero or low-carbon strategic infrastructure. To encourage strategic planning for the required transition to zero-carbon ship propulsion, the report recommends establishing guidelines for ports and incentivizing them to invest in hydrogen infrastructure.

Building investor confidence in port owners and shipbuilders is essential to attract private investment into the market. The report calls for improved governance for onshore hydrogen facilities to ensure proactive resolution of evolving regulatory issues.

To facilitate collaboration between shore-based and vessel-based systems, the RHC advocates for regulators to agree on common standards enabling interoperability between ship and shore systems. This alignment would foster a more cohesive and efficient ecosystem for hydrogen-powered maritime vessels.

The council has also recommended the creation of a Centre or Taskforce for Hydrogen Maritime Propulsion that would ensure proactive resolution of evolving regulatory issues.

Time is of the essence, according to the RHC. To seize the window of opportunity and ensure the adoption of hydrogen fuel in the maritime sector, the UK government must act swiftly.

By implementing the recommendations put forth by the report, the UK can position itself as a leading player in the development and uptake of hydrogen production in maritime vessels. The nation’s shipbuilders can construct hydrogen-propelled vessels over the next 3-5 years, meeting the demands of wind farms, aquaculture, coastal freight, and ferry transport, while bolstering the growth of ancillary services providers and driving economic benefits for the nation.

According to the report, there is a large and growing market in the UK and the North Sea for offshore wind support vessels that could potentially be furnished by hydrogen-powered ships, which is technically viable.

However, the council said that the UK’s considerable investment in R&D has not yet led to significant private sector investment in either vessel development or port infrastructure, despite the viability of the technology for the former having been demonstrated.

As explained, this is symptomatic of a broader challenge in the UK, whereby technically innovative businesses flourish at early stages, and then struggle to scale.

“From stimulating demand for UK shipbuilders, to bolstering job creation in our coastal communities, to sustainably supporting our world-leading offshore wind farm industries, the adoption of hydrogen and other low-carbon fuels in the maritime sector offers an array of opportunities for the UK to deliver on our plan to build an innovative economy,” UK’s Secretary of State for Science, Innovation, and Technology, Chloe Smith, told the Regulatory Horizons Council, welcoming the report.

Charlotte Vere, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, the Minister for Aviation, Maritime and Security, recognized that understanding the future of the fuels landscape is a crucial next step in our drive towards reaching net zero by 2050.

“On 10 March 2022, we announced a £206 million funding pot and the creation of the UK Shipping Office for the Reduction of Emissions (UK SHORE) research and development programme. This represents the biggest government investment in the commercial maritime sector and is focused on accelerating the technology necessary to decarbonise our domestic maritime sector. This includes funding research into hydrogen fuels,” she said.

“In parallel, my department has an extensive maritime decarbonisation policy and regulation programme. As part of this, we are considering those interventions which may be necessary to support the transition to net zero by 2050 for the maritime sector – including with regards port infrastructure and fuel supply. Whilst our approach is technology neutral, I believe that hydrogen will play a significant role and this report helps us in that regard. We plan to publish an updated Clean Maritime Plan by the end of this year which will set out a trajectory to 2050.

“We will work with other areas of government highlighted in the report to produce a full response later in the year.”

The main UK mechanism for supporting hydrogen maritime development has been the Clean Maritime Demonstrator Competition (CMDC). The first two rounds of the CMDC allocated over £35m to 86 projects across the UK to deliver feasibility studies and trials in clean maritime solutions. Out of a total of 86 projects, 35 focused on hydrogen or hydrogen-derived fuels, such as ammonia and methanol, and received more than 40% of the overall grant funding.

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Based on the report, a reasonable worst-case scenario sees UK users such as wind farm operators, replace their current fleet with fossil-fuel-powered vessels which remain in use until 2050 and beyond. This would directly frustrate the UK’s net zero ambitions.

Therefore, with the right regulatory environment, hydrogen propulsion could steer the maritime sector towards a greener and more prosperous horizon, the RHC report highlights.