The Future Outlook for Hydrogen

Costain decarbonisation expert, Grant Spence, shares his view on how the UK can collectively win the race to net zero in the concluding session of the ‘Hydrogen – Tracking Transition Series’, organised by Energy Voice.

In the fourth panel debate, themed ‘What next in the hydrogen space?’ I joined other panel members in setting the scene for the next stage in the evolution of hydrogen.

So, what are the prospects for hydrogen and what best practices need to be in place? I shared my thoughts for successful delivery in three key areas:

Practicalities of the infrastructure
We’ve heard a lot about the production of hydrogen but less about how it’s going to be delivered to end users. As a project director, I am very much focused on the successful delivery of projects. There’s much talk about the technology and demand, but we don’t talk nearly so much about the infrastructure required to connect the two.

The practicalities can make or break projects. You need to work out what you need to do to get projects up and running, but also keep a keen eye on where you want to be in the longer term. As we race towards net zero, things are moving fast, but it’s important to make decisions based on a longer-term and systems view, not just focusing on the easy, short-term wins.

One way the UK is tackling emissions from heavy industry is through the industrial clusters mission. This approach, which has identified six regions of high-intensity carbon emissions, allows decisions to be made at a regional level to develop bespoke solutions which fit the needs of local businesses and communities. Costain is proud to be involved in four of these clusters.

When I joined Costain, I led the front end engineering design (FEED) study of what will be the UK’s first 100% hydrogen-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plant for Essar Oil at the Stanlow Refinery in Cheshire. The project is one of a portfolio of anchor projects which comprise the HyNet project, which is at the heart of plans to decarbonise the North-West England industrial cluster. Once operational, the HyNet project will save over one million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year, the equivalent of taking more than 600,000 cars off the road.

Fast-forward to now, and Costain is also undertaking an initial concept study and FEED for the HyNet project hydrogen storage facility in Cheshire, storing up to 1.3 TWh of hydrogen underground in salt cavities. This will allow excess hydrogen to be stored during periods of low demand, and discharged into the network during peak winter periods, balancing supply and demand within the HyNet hydrogen system.

These two projects are good examples of how we’re using systems thinking to design the best possible combination of projects to solve the net zero problem: the CHP plant will use hydrogen produced on the same site, and the storage project will help smooth out the supply and demand fluctuations.

Costain also has a lead role in the South Wales Industrial Cluster (SWIC) deployment project. Collaborating with multiple partners, the project began in 2021 and the current phase will run for three years. The SWIC approach is different from the other clusters in that rather than centring on one major facility or project, SWIC is reviewing many opportunities for decarbonisation across the region and designing the optimal approach to combine these smaller projects into one complete net zero system.

Low carbon hydrogen
In a previous article, I discussed what colour the fuel of the future will be, looking at the different production methods and highlighting that there are varying opinions on the way forward. Some argue the need for blue hydrogen on pragmatic grounds, whilst others endorse an entirely green hydrogen approach based on applying a sustainable approach.

Currently under 20 per cent of our energy demand is supplied by the electricity system. Approximately 30% of this electricity is provided by renewables, with around 50% of the electricity produced being low carbon if we include nuclear power production. Having taken twenty years to get to this point, aiming to achieve a net zero energy system which is entirely supplied by sustainable renewable energy would appear to be incredibly challenging. And could threaten our ability to deliver a net zero energy system by 2050.

What’s important is creating a reliable source of low carbon hydrogen, to enable hydrogen systems to be established. If meeting the 2050 deadline means we have to use blue hydrogen because we can’t get enough green hydrogen, then so be it – if that’s what’s necessary. The government supports this, with their twin track approach combining a variety of production methods.

What next? Predictions for the future
Blending hydrogen into the existing gas networks has been proposed, and is being trialled, but is dependent on the government deciding to move ahead with the plan.

A decision on blending is expected by 2023, and this could be the green light for many projects to go ahead. If the business models are in place, we could build the infrastructure required in this decade.

Ten years ago, we were talking about CCS, but when it got to the point of delivery, the process stalled. We cannot afford to do that this time. The imperative is too great for us not to go ahead. Industry, academia and the engineering community must work together with the government and regulators to make our net zero future a reality. There is simply no escaping the fact that climate change is an emergency, and the UK’s net zero 2050 target is a necessity, not a preference.

Find out more about how Costain is accelerating the race to net zero here: