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The hydrogen solution

By Paul Yates, account director

To achieve the ambitions of the Paris Climate Accord we’re required to look at new, innovative approaches to energy supply. This is undoubtedly a challenging task however, research is pointing more and more towards hydrogen being one of the answers when it comes to decarbonising our economy.

Hydrogen can transform domestic heating and vehicle transport, large scale energy generation and energy intensive industry. It is flexible and clean at the point of end use, helping to address local air quality issues, and can be stored under pressure at high volumes, providing resilience. It is already in use in fuel cells powering vehicles such as buses and fork lift trucks. The Energy Research Partnership (ERP) considers that it has the potential to power up to 10% of road vehicles and to replace natural gas in the grid transmission system, in the same way that towns gas was replaced with natural gas in the 1970s.

Of course, the use of hydrogen doesn’t come without its challenges. Manufacture through electrolysis is only low carbon if the electricity used is low carbon and in reality, the quantity of electricity required will be prohibitive. Using hydrogen from steam methane reformation (SMR) would require about a third more natural gas to produce it than using the natural gas itself directly. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) would also be required to avoid a negative impact in terms of climate change.

So, for the hydrogen economy to be a viable route for decarbonisation, we need SMR, CCS and use of the existing gas network, replacing natural gas with hydrogen. Current thinking is that we need 100% hydrogen replacement of natural gas, as blending at lower proportions simply does not work out as carbon beneficial due to the CO2 generated in manufacture. However, this leaves us with a problem: domestic appliances are not able to run on natural gas with more than about 20% hydrogen, so would have to be replaced. Safety concerns about hydrogen combustion in enclosed domestic spaces would also need to be fully understood and addressed.

So, the widespread use of hydrogen is far from straight-forward. However, the pace of research and investment is rapidly increasing as the push for decarbonisation moves on, and there are positive results:

  • We have worked with the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) to study in detail the potential for storing hydrogen and hydrogen gas mixtures underground in salt caverns, which can then be used in gas turbines when demand for energy is high. We are also looking at opportunities with Ports and Councils on low carbon infrastructure that will form part of the equation.
  • Northern Gas Networks are progressing their H21 City Gate project to replace natural gas with hydrogen while using existing gas networks, incorporating CCS and hydrogen storage in the Yorkshire salt caverns, and are looking to extend this to Hull.
    Peel Holdings are working on a hydrogen hub in the North West to decarbonise heating and energy production for a mixed-use development.
  • Alstom has developed a Hydrogen fuel cell powered version of its Coradia iLint suburban train and is testing it in Germany. The test runs in Lower Saxony use hydrogen generated as a by-product of industrial processes. In the longer term, Alstom aims to support production of hydrogen using wind power.
  • Fuel Cell Systems, working with the University of Birmingham and Hitachi Rail Europe, has completed a six- month study for the UK rail industry, which shows that hydrogen fuel cell technology can be successfully retro-fitted to extend the life of existing rolling stock. Funded by RSSB and Network Rail, the project demonstrated that the use of fuel cell technology could reduce journey times, eliminate emissions at the point of use and improve passenger comfort through smooth and rapid acceleration and minimal noise and vibration.

This is a really exciting opportunity for the UK and the North of England to be at the forefront of the low carbon economy. But it requires leadership in thinking across traditional market boundaries and between projects. Something Atkins is ideally positioned to lead.