When it comes to green energy transitions, few cities have made as impressive progress as the Scottish city of Aberdeen. In spite of being a major global hub for offshore energy – traditionally oil and gas – the city and its Council have stepped up to the challenge of Scotland achieving Net Zero carbon emissions by 2045.

Barney Crockett, the Lord Provost of Aberdeen, shares how the port city is leading the transition to cleaner sources of energy and the role of hydrogen power in this.

Green energy transformations

Aberdeen is home to more than 1,000 international energy companies, and is already the global centre for underwater exploration and drilling tech.

Crockett believes that renewable sources like hydrogen are the future of energy, and the city is committed to helping its residents and businesses prepare for such a future. “We launched our hydrogen strategy more than 10 years ago and continue to improve on it,” emphasises Crockett.

Aberdeen, noted for having one of the most diverse vehicle deployments in Europe, is home to the largest and most reliable fleets of hydrogen buses in Europe.

Besides being better for the environment with no carbon emissions, these buses offer a community-lifestyle change like few others. “People using the buses have been very enthusiastic because not only did their travel produce no harmful emissions, but the buses are entirely silent so they offer a very high quality travel experience as well,” says Crockett. He adds “Drivers feel proud that they’re driving a hydrogen bus and are now themselves interested in energy transitions.”

One of the challenges in deploying these buses in the early days was the time taken for refueling them as they take “very slightly longer to refuel than diesel buses”. “When you’re in a huge, busy city, even that can be an issue,” says Crockett. “So to overcome this, the city is working closely with bus manufacturers and we’ve made an enormous amount of progress in improving this aspect as well.” Today, a hydrogen fuel tank takes approximately three to five minutes to fill up, similar to gasoline tanks.

An all-of-community approach

Crockett’s quick to point out the value of collaborations between government, business and community in driving real change. “The Aberdeen City Council works closely with businesses to jointly map out the future in a way that matters to the local economy. This is something that other economies, particularly Singapore, have also done.”

In Aberdeen, the collaboration is apparent as the city works closely with businesses, including offshore wind producers, to scale up the production of green hydrogen and is inviting businesses from everywhere to participate in its green transition projects. One such project is the city’s newest conference centre that is set up to be powered with the largest hydrogen fuel cell in Britain. “We are encouraging local energy companies to develop supply chains in hydrogen,” shares Crockett.

To ensure that its citizens’ needs and aspirations are included in the city’s future, community engagement is something the City council has invested early in. “We have been working very closely with our schools to try and foster the skills that people are going to need in the future,” states Crockett.

For example, to support the initial roll out of hydrogen buses in the city in 2014, the Aberdeen City Council partnered with an energy company to organise the Aberdeen Schools Hydrogen Challenge. Today, this has become an annual event that fosters innovation and environment-consciousness as students build working models of race cars with hydrogen fuel cells and Lego.

The University of Aberdeen has set up a Centre for Energy Transition, which will conduct research to help industries transition to cleaner energy. The university has also co-founded the National Decommissioning Centre to fulfill the same function on a global scale.

“We’re seeing change at speeds that we haven’t seen in the past. So we have to be ready to be at the forefront of that,” says Crockett.

The post-pandemic recovery is green

The Covid-19 outbreak has left countries and their economies reeling, but rather than stall important climate conversations, a sustainable green recovery plan offers real opportunities out of a pandemic. This is something that the UK government, in its joint-Chairmanship of the global climate summit COP26, has committed to as well.

Crockett agrees. “We must make sure that we see the response to Covid-19 in terms of our own future, and drive that energy change,” he says.

In Aberdeen, the pandemic has “propelled” energy transition plans forward, he adds. Oil prices have dropped and the future of energy prices is uncertain, but “we can see the shape of change”, he says. “Pushing forward with the switch to clean energy will be crucial in recovering from the pandemic.”

Economic growth and cross-sector investment

Earlier this year, the city announced plans to build an energy transition zone, an industrial area that will support the development of renewable energies. The zone will help smooth the economy’s shift away from fossil fuel industries, says Crockett. “We can’t lose them rapidly,” he notes, “but we will be fostering new developments that can replace them in time.” These developments may be important for other regions that depend heavily on more traditional sources of energy, including Southeast Asia.

“We hope that we can really develop some very pioneering ways of looking at the future of energy using this special zone,” shares Crockett. With government and the private sector coming together to develop the zone, “there’s a lot of investment and that investment is looking at how we can work collaboratively across the world on energy change,” he adds.

Open for collaboration

“Aberdeen’s green energy measures demonstrate the possibilities for other cities around the world. Hydrogen vehicles in particular hold great potential for Southeast Asia,” says Crockett. They were part of the city’s strategy to target its “significant problem” with air pollution – an issue many cities in Southeast Asia struggle with as well.

Aberdeen shares its knowledge with other cities through the World Energy Cities Partnership, chaired by Crockett. In this, member cities share their innovations in greening their energy sources and collaborate to develop best practices to help cities thrive.

“The idea that countries just compete very aggressively with one another is not the model for the future of energy transition,” says Crockett. Aberdeen demonstrates the potential that clean energy has for improving quality of life and supporting green recovery for a post-Covid economy and hopes that its journey could help inspire other cities around the world make their own green transitions. “Climate change and the energy transition isn’t any one country’s fight, and leaders will have to learn from one another,” he says.