Report: Take whole systems approach to hydrogen economy

Article by Adam Duckett

New report lays out interweaving challenges and offers recommendations on scaleup, safety and skills

ENGINEERS have advised the UK Government that it must push for a rapid scaleup of low-carbon hydrogen infrastructure to meet its net zero targets and has warned it must adopt a “whole system” approach to manage the risks and interdependencies that stand in the way of success.

If the Government were in any doubt about the complexity of effort required in the coming 27 years to overhaul the energy production, storage and transportation systems that have been laid down over the last century, the report published from the Royal Academy of Engineering’s National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC), which includes input from IChemE Members, offers a clear-eyed analysis of the key challenges faced.

Nilay Shah, an IChemE Fellow and Vice-Chair of the NEPC Net Zero Working Group, said: “Hydrogen is a highly versatile energy vector that could be used in many hard-to-decarbonise sectors where other energy vectors, such as electricity, may not be suitable. However, there is a significant gap between our current levels of low-carbon hydrogen production and the level the UK needs to meet its carbon budgets and achieve the target of net zero emissions by 2050. If the Government’s commitment to hydrogen is to succeed it will require swift development of low carbon hydrogen production capacity, which is essentially starting from scratch.”

The UK Government is currently aiming for 10 GW or 84 TWh of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 and is estimating demand of 250-460 TWh in 2050. Presently, the UK produces around 27 TWh of hydrogen each year, 96% of which is from grey hydrogen production used chiefly as feedstocks for the petrochemical and fertiliser sectors.

Among the 16 recommendations for Government, engineers have called for immediate investment in pilot projects to provide the evidence needed to work out which hydrogen end-uses can achieve the highest carbon saving and cost efficiencies from a whole-system perspective. And within the next five years Government must develop and implement “an ambitious but pragmatic roadmap for how low-carbon hydrogen production is to be scaled up to meet demand, with details about the contributions of each type of hydrogen production, including taking a whole-system approach to the scaling up of key requisite technologies” including CCS, renewable electricity generation and electrolysers.

Connecting the dots

The report says the Government must manage the risks and dependencies of scaling up hydrogen value chains, hydrogen leakages, safety and public trust, skills gaps, regulations, embodied carbon infrastructure, and blue vs green hydrogen competition.

It notes that blue hydrogen depends on CCS yet all UK CCS projects are in development phase and there is presently no UK CO2 storage capacity. Meeting climate targets will depend on the operational capture rates that can be achieved. These have been shown to vary, with the Quest project in Canada managing 80% compared to 99.9% at the Tomakomai CCS Demonstration Project in Japan. Blue hydrogen depends on fossil fuel supply and international gas prices which as the war in Ukraine has shown are at risk of geopolitical interference.

Meanwhile, green hydrogen depends on renewable electricity generation whose expansion is stymied by lengthy planning regulations. The critical materials required for electrolysers and batteries can be scarce, face increasing international demand, and some are sourced from countries that may not favour the UK. Electrolysis also requires a significant amount of water as a feedstock, so desalination may be required which produces brines that pose environmental risks.

End uses

The report review hydrogen use across industry, power, transport and domestic heating. It notes that while the best use of hydrogen has yet to be determined, low-carbon hydrogen should be available for the end uses in which its deployment has the potential to become the best or only low- or zero-carbon option available. NEPC’s analysis highlights, for example, that hydrogen is likely to become the most effective or the only viable decarbonisation option for some end uses such as primary steelmaking, industrial heating and as a chemical feedstock for industrial processes.

It recommends the Government take a region-specific approach to developing local hydrogen economies, with low-carbon hydrogen production and end use initially focused on industrial clusters where production and use of grey hydrogen is already located. It says these clusters represent early opportunities to accelerate the UK’s transition towards low-carbon hydrogen including blue and green hydrogen. It can then be expanded throughout the energy system. The success of this expansion will then depend on the regional development of infrastructure, supply chains, skills and services.

The report suggests that a pragmatic way to achieve the Government’s 2030 target will likely comprise implementing CCS to turn the UK’s existing grey hydrogen production capacity to blue hydrogen while supporting the scaleup of green hydrogen production in parallel. It should work out the target for blue hydrogen production by balancing the production cost between blue and green hydrogen and the availability and performance of CCS for blue hydrogen production over time.

Other recommendations

The report calls for the Government to undertake further safety assessments to investigate and ensure the safety of hydrogen and use the findings to establish safety standards for hydrogen production, transportation and storage.

It calls for further research into the skills gaps that need to be bridged to scale up CCS, renewable electricity and hydrogen technologies. It says a skills strategy is needed to upskill workers for emerging sectors and ensure a just transition for those employed by the offshore energy sectors.

While it welcomes the Government’s development of a low-carbon hydrogen standard that should help minimise fugitive emissions and support technology-neutral financing and investment, it says more regulators will be needed to enforce it.

It recommends researching how to reduce or remove the need for critical materials in electrolysers and says further investigations are required to understand the water supply and waste management systems needed to support electrolysis at scale.

Thinking and Big Oil

Asked in a press briefing about the systems thinking challenges involved and the Government’s capabilities to deal with it, Shah said: “I think the bit that people struggle with from the systems analysis is the sequencing.” He said the country has not correctly prioritised energy efficiency. If we were to focus on reducing demand for energy – and therefore hydrogen – it would reduce the infrastructure required for energy generation, storage and transport, which in turn would reduce the complexity faced.

On whether the Government has the systems-thinking capabilities to meet the challenge, he said: “It’s not there yet but it’s a priority that is becoming embedded very quickly.”

Shah said work is underway to train Government employees, work across departments, and publish and share success stories about where systems thinking has been applied.

Asked how crucial a role oil and gas companies will play in the future hydrogen economy and whether they can they be trusted not to hold it back, Shah pointed to the pivots to clean energy made by the Danish and Norwegian state oil companies

“Our best bet is to find policies that accelerate that pivoting as quickly as possible because they have the skills, the balance sheets, the project experience that allow us to get there faster than for example startups will be able to get us to in 28 years…Of course we should have other bets in play as well.”

Read The Role of Hydrogen in a Net Energy System:

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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