BLOG: Hydrogen- what are we waiting for?

Prem Mahi, Development and Innovation Director – Energy at Mott MacDonald asks what are we waiting for when it comes to hydrogen?

Hydrogen is the fuel of the future. It is well known that hydrogen will assist to tackle climate change issues and meet global targets. Early stages of production of hydrogen from natural gas results in a by-product of carbon dioxide. Eventually hydrogen from renewable energy will take off without carbon dioxide being produced.

Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is essential to the UK achieving its 2050 net-zero emissions goal. That’s the view of the independent Committee on Climate Change, with CCUS key to decarbonising energy-intensive industries and an important stepping-stone to a cleaner, hydrogen-powered economy before green hydrogen takes off.

The UK is already a leader in developing business models for CCUS, and its history of offshore oil and gas exploration provides the technical expertise and underground space to store carbon. Projects over the past 10 years or more have tested the feasibility of capturing and storing carbon and repurposing existing infrastructure and assets.

Hydrogen production, transport and storage network is crucial to a sustained development of the hydrogen economy.

So what’s holding us back?

That was the question posed at a recent webinar on hydrogen and CCUS hosted by Mott MacDonald (along with the Energy Industries Council) and involving industry experts. Chaired by Prem Mahi, energy development and innovation manager at Mott MacDonald, who asked what is missing from the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ for a speedy implementation of the hydrogen economy?

Damitha Adikaari, director of science and innovation for climate and energy from BEIS, pointed out that the government is supporting research and development into hydrogen and CCUS, but said further questions needed answering before the UK could move on from this R&D focus, including determining the likely level of supply and demand for both hydrogen and CCUS.

Tony Green, project director for hydrogen at National Grid, outlined the challenges facing the utility, including switching the 85% of UK households currently using natural gas for heating to hydrogen. ‘There are upstream and downstream questions that need answering,’ he said. ‘What volumes of hydrogen will we need? Where can it be stored? Will hydrogen also power transport? Can the transmission network operate with hydrogen up to 100%?’

Tony wants the government to produce a hydrogen strategy covering production, transmission and demand.

‘Most storage technology is proven and has been around a long time, but we’ll need much more capacity,’ said Graham Bennett, vice president, DNV GL. ‘The UK currently stores about 5bnm3 of natural gas. Replacing this amount with hydrogen will require space for 15bnm3 because of hydrogen’s higher calorific value.’

Graham said delivering additional capacity would depend on regulatory approval from the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities among others. He also said carbon dioxide would most likely be stored offshore, and hydrogen onshore to enable distribution.

Mott MacDonald’s chief economist, Guy Doyle, examined the costs of rolling out hydrogen and CCUS infrastructure. ‘Costs will fall with increased scale and technology advances, and using legacy infrastructure, such as existing pipelines, will make the transition cheaper,’ he explained, ‘though government support will be necessary.’

He said this could be through a combination of a regulated asset base (RAB) funding model providing secure payback and return on investment for developers, and off-take arrangements that guarantee a purchase price to enable developers to secure investment.

David Parkin, director, Progressive Energy, believes clusters are key to breaking the supply-demand paradigm. ‘Build them and everything else will follow,’ he said, adding: ‘They’ll also support the economic recovery from Covid-19.’

The speedy roll out of clusters was also supported by Tony Smith, commercial strategy manager of Peel L&P Environmental, though he pointed out that the government’s financial commitment to their development is a fraction of the cost of high-profile projects such as the High Speed 2 rail network. Tony also wants the government to take a more integrated approach to developing hydrogen, rather than it being spread across different departments, such as energy and transport.