BLOG: Creating a digital foundation for the UK hydrogen economy

Will Leonard, Innovation and Technology Manager, ABB Energy Industries UK, argues that robust digital systems are essential to support a hydrogen economy in the UK.  

The UK Government’s Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy, set the goals for a reduction in carbon emission of two-thirds by 2035 and 90% by 2050. Estimates suggest one third of carbon reductions can be achieved through energy efficiency, one third via carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) and one third through the use of hydrogen. Put simply, hydrogen is an essential part of the mix. And it is hard to understate the importance that digitalisation will play in these future activities.

The UK could well set itself up as a best-practice example of how to plan, fund, build, connect and run a national hydrogen economy. Yet to be successful we cannot let the hydrogen grid grow into siloes or discrete operations. There needs to be a national playbook, based on common, open interconnected solutions and a fully digitalised backbone, supported by powerful data and control solutions.

The argument for digitalisation

A successful hydrogen economy requires the creation of a complex infrastructure and its stability will be dependent on a strong digitalised system.

Being able to monitor, manage and optimise how energy is used in hydrogen production and distribution, using tools like smart sensors, connected systems to monitor, control and optimise using a variety of edge and cloud technology, will enable us to minimise carbon emissions. There is no alternative to achieving this than through digitalisation.

Taking this a step further, digitalisation is also fundamental to the economic manufacturing of the things that are required to fuel this economy, for example: electrolysers.  Even the processes required to create them can be optimised, this can include the use of robotics and making operations as autonomous as possible.

Harnessing digital

Digital control solutions already exist to manage and optimise new energy sources and decentralised utility grid structures. For example: ABB’s Ability OPTIMAX is designed to support the bi-directional flow of energy and information, by aggregating and optimising the energy resources, which can be spread over a wide geographical area, into a virtual power plant.

The rationale behind its development is to promote grid stability by simplifying operations, reducing energy costs and cutting emissions.  By aggregating data and giving clear, unambiguous insights into energy generation and use, information which can then be used to optimise energy use, highlight efficiencies, alongside ways to save costs.

Start small and scale

Projects such Hynet North West are already demonstrating the potential of micro hydrogen economies, which are combining generation, transportation, fuel use and CCUS on a local scale in a truly interconnected, interdependent value chain we’ve not seen before

Clusters like HyNet already have the opportunity to exploit digital connectivity, which among operational advantages, is also delivering the ability to exploit significant efficiency savings and gains. This has to be built into the blueprint of these projects now.

Creating a hydrogen economy

Once tighter digitalised controls and management are in place and the hydrogen market begins to even out, less volatile unit costs begin to manifest, which ultimately make the market a far more attractive proposition for investors, as has been seen in the wind market.

Task any engineer – electrical, mechanical or civil – with developing a clean-slate approach to modern infrastructure and you can guarantee that digital technologies will form a major part of the mix. Unlike existing plants and operations, where they must digitally transform incumbent infrastructures, with hydrogen we can start with an interconnected digital foundation from which to expand outwards, upwards & onwards for a carbon neutral future.

Originally published in Energy Voice