Energy Transition defines a generation

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The energy transition is one of the defining issues of our generation and, if you’ve sat through as many webinars as I have on the issue in the past year, you already know that hydrogen isn’t a ‘silver bullet’ answer to the problem – but it will be necessary if we are to achieve fully decarbonized economies. Here in the UK, the national government has been playing its cards close to its chest in terms of a formally announced national hydrogen strategy, whilst mainland European economies have been openly committing billions to the cause. However, with the announcement almost upon us – expected in the middle of this month (July 2021) – it’s important to consider what this plan might hold for more isolated regions of the country. It’s easy to draw up plans for the decarbonisation of city-based vehicle fleets or industrial hubs and their various feedstocks (e.g. Teesside) but what about isolated communities already relying on outdated technologies to heat their homes with no connection to national grid infrastructure?

Here at HyEnergy, through our role in the SEAFUEL project, we’ve been looking at how these hard to reach, often forgotten about, regions can take an active role in the energy transition and transform their energetic landscapes – with hydrogen and renewable energy’s symbiotic relationship playing a key role in achieving this.

Take the South West of the England for instance, an area which has great renewable potential across all technologies – wind, solar, offshore and marine – but still faces a number of key energy issues, primely related to heat. National gas pipelines do not extend through to the breadths of the region, leaving many residents with no other choice but to use outdated, expensive and polluting fuels such as oil. Due to this, residents within the area experience a higher-than-average fuel poverty rate – e.g. 14.4% in Cornwall compared to the UK average of 10.3%. The gas grid isn’t the only issue however, the South West already has some of the worst dispatch down statistics for wind energy in the UK due to poor grid connections leading to constraints; suggesting that RES penetrations could increase if it were not for poor infrastructure.

Sound familiar? Well in Northern Ireland (NI) the problem is actually much worse. In the last census it was reported that a staggering 62% of households relied entirely on oil for heating , and due to a mix of its cost, cold weather and low incomes (NI has the second lowest earnings of all UK regions) experiences a fuel poverty rate of 22%.  However, it also has problems with its electricity grid – in January 2021 the Single Electricity Market Operator issued an amber alert to power suppliers as energy reserves may not have been sufficient to supply consumers should something have gone wrong. This was caused by high demands, power plant shut downs and low wind speeds. Enter hydrogen:

  • By acting as a load balancing mechanism and energy vector, hydrogen can help to alleviate these issues. Firstly, electrolysers can be coupled with renewables to produce hydrogen when energy would otherwise be curtailed, this hydrogen can then be used to feed energy back into the electricity grid via combustion during times of low production (e.g. low wind speeds).
    • For Northern Ireland this hydrogen could be stored at scale in underground storage locations throughout the region for use when needed.
    • Whereas, for the South West this hydrogen could help to ensure the maximum deployment of renewable electricity technologies possible by producing an energy vector which isn’t hampered by the poor electricity grid connections and cabling.
  • Hydrogen has the ability to decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors such as transport, industry and, more importantly for both the regions, heating. Hydrogen as a locally produced, green fuel can enable the decarbonisation of off-grid properties that would otherwise be left further crippled by forecasted carbon taxes, whilst also acting as an impetus for renewable and hydrogen sector growth – providing potentially 1000s of sustainable jobs .
    • With long-term investment both regions also possess enough renewable potential to produce hydrogen for export, inter-regionally or internationally, adding further value back to the local economy.
  • The UK has focused its CO2 mitigation measures on industrial clusters – aiming at the lowest hanging fruit whilst maximizing the impact per pound invested. Within these plans there are ambitions to spill additional product into surrounding areas to further hydrogen sector growth in these places where early stage production and local hydrogen value chain development has not occurred. Key targets are the south east, the south west and NI – therefore, it must be inferred that NI and the SW risk being left behind at this key development moment for future infrastructure. Both need to build and present robust, localized strategies to government to develop hydrogen value chains in order to position themselves in the next step of sweeping environmental reforms.

So, NI and the SW both possess the natural geographic positioning to enable abundant renewables deployment and be put at the forefront of this energy transition, but also both require a fresh start – to remove outdated energy systems leading to fuel poverty. They both need local, secure retained jobs and wealth to grow the economy with sustainability at its core. The impact of hydrogen has already been seen in other European regions and the South West and Northern Ireland both need to act now before losing their opportunity.  

Josh Williamson

 Project Manager for HyEnergy Consultancy in the Interreg funded Seafuel project

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