BLOG: ‘It’s the capacity, stupid’ – Gareth Davis at Costain

Bill Clinton was the last person to successfully unseat a U.S. President, defeating George Bush Sr. in 1992. This major change was achieved through a strategy based on three simple messages. They hung from the door of his campaign office in Little Rock, Arkansas.

  • Change vs. more of the same
  • Don’t forget health care

But thirdly, and most memorably…

  • It’s the economy, stupid

Could we use simple messages to convey the importance of a hydrogen economy to a wider audience? Yes, except this time…

It’s the capacity, stupid.

It’s the capacity of low carbon energy production. Nuclear appears to be stalled, and renewables capacity over the next decade won’t be able to match energy requirements for the UK. Although renewables produced 33% of UK electricity in 2018, this only equates to about 6% of UK energy consumption, with most energy being used for heat (largely gas) and transport (mainly petrol and diesel).

There is growing evidence of support for hydrogen in the UK. A recent survey commissioned by the North West Hydrogen Alliance showed that two-thirds of people think low-carbon fuel is the future for transport (June 26, 2019), this comes as a report on HyMotion demonstrated that industrially-produced, network-delivered hydrogen is the only way we’ll get the economies of scale needed to make fuel cell transport options a reality (June 14, 2019).

Electrolysis can be used as a means of producing hydrogen by passing an electrical current through water. This approach seems to be well-suited to hydrogen production for transport in the long term. However, there are practical concerns over the decarbonisation of electricity used to power the electrolysis units in the first place and the rate of the potential deployment of electrolysis units. With only a limited number of manufacturers in this sector, there is a risk that the manufacture of electrolysers will not keep pace with demand. While electrolysis could be relevant for small, niche application, large scale electrolysis to meet the capacity requirements is currently expensive compared to natural gas reforming and is inappropriate for widespread use.

The scale of hydrogen production possible with industrial-scale Auto Thermal Reforming (ATR) or Low Carbon Hydrogen (LCH) technology on the other hand is well understood, in operation globally and is enormous compared to that achievable by a single electrolysis unit. Developing a single site for industrial-scale production of hydrogen could produce as much energy as thousands of electrolysis units. The Hynet scheme proposed by Cadent would provide industrial heat to the north west of England by producing 890 MW of hydrogen at a single site. In comparison an electrolysis unit typically produces 1 to 5 MW.

As we work towards the UK’s net zero target in 2050, our energy requirements are unlikely to significantly reduce, so we will need to produce sufficient quantities of low carbon energy. Hydrogen has clear advantages as a low carbon fuel and can help us to meet our carbon reduction commitments, but to realise its potential over the next three decades there will be challenges to overcome to ensure we can produce the required capacity and deliver it to the point of use economically and efficiently.

The North West could lead the way, delivering hydrogen capacity for national benefit. The North West Energy and Hydrogen Cluster – a partnership of companies, regional leaders and network of academic experts under the North West Business Leadership Team – recently came together to meet the Government’s challenge of delivering the world’s first net-zero carbon industrial cluster by 2040. With innovative projects, such as HyNet, already underway, the North West also offers a low cost and low risk approach to carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS). CCUS is an intrinsic part of industrial scale hydrogen production, with the potential for storage to take place in Liverpool Bay gas fields as part of the HyNet project.

Continued government investment is vital to grow hydrogen production and focusing it where there is already expertise and existing infrastructure would enable the UK to make significant early progress towards a hydrogen economy.