The UK is uniquely positioned to lead on the development of a vibrant net zero energy economy, though this will call for rapid investment in technology innovation throughout the next 10 years, which are set to prove crucial, according to the Technology Leadership Board, Net Zero Technology Centre and Accenture.
Setting the scene within their report, Technology Driving Green Energy Growth, the trio outlined how the UK needs to generate 10GW of low carbon hydrogen by 2030, with at least half of this coming from green hydrogen, while also creating at least four carbon capture and storage (CCS) clusters to reach targets set under the North Sea Transition Deal. However, many solutions on this pathway are immature and expensive, calling for investment to innovate the energy ecosystem for net zero and unlock the low carbon opportunity facing the UK.
This means that the likes of industry, the supply chain, government and research organisations must come together to align on intent, enable efficient investment and collaborate around solutions that disrupt the status quo, with opportunities to exploit across hydrogen, floating offshore wind, CCS technologies and the innovation landscape which, if identified and realised, could cut green hydrogen costs by 60%, reduce floating wind costs by up to 40%, and de-risk blue hydrogen, lowering the cost of delivery and enabling a future import market for CO2.
To make this possible, it went on to set out a series of priority recommendations that will drive the rapid, early roll out of net zero technologies, including a call for government to sponsor and champion the delivery of test and demonstration centres that can de-risk, standardise and scale promising technologies.
It is also calling for industry to be supported and incentivised towards rapid test and deployment of technologies to drive improvements in efficiency, modularity and scalability, reducing levelised costs by at least 50% for offshore wind solutions, electrolysers, carbon capture technology and innovative materials, as well as for an infrastructure plan to be created to transport, transmit, store and manage new energy commodities, such as hydrogen, renewable electricity, ammonia and CO2.
When it comes to green hydrogen, the report drew how there is a “significant opportunity” to produce it across the North Sea territory, given how it is rich in wind resource, which can be used to feed electrolysers. However, to truly make the most of this potential, there is a need to improve existing electrolysis methods in terms of operating efficiencies, costs and scale, while incubating next generation methods.
Its key recommendations, therefore, include co-locating green hydrogen with wind resources, as this will minimise grid reliance and help to accelerate scale-up of the industry. Connecting production directly to both on and offshore wind power can help reduce reliance on the grid and while acknowledging a “large gap to close”, it highlighted substantial potential to use high-density energy storage and offshore electrolysers to enable hydrogen to be produced offshore, before then being transported back to land, noting a robust midstream network would then be necessary for distribution.
It further cited opportunities to innovate and create smaller, more flexible and more efficient electrolysers, with modularised design disrupting the market, increasing efficiencies and reducing maintenance costs, and also emphasised the chance to accelerate innovation through opening technology centres to develop and improve electrolysis methods and gain market share. It explained how incubating new electrolysis methods and material science developments and improving mature designs in centres of excellence will help to speed up product development, enable industrial problem solving and then deliver electrolyser efficiency gains.
Homing in specifically on the high impact technology gaps and opportunities facing the UK, it drew on how £3.50/kg is the upper threshold for the levelised cost of hydrogen to be commercially viable and, when considering up to 84% of this is attributable to the renewable electricity cost, lowering this offers the greatest potential to reduce the cost of green hydrogen. This is where modularised floating wind designs that make the most of efficient use of steel and other materials for substructures and mooring systems could have a real impact, ensuring that the cost of green hydrogen falls to competitive levels.
It also detailed how targeted technological development and the use of UK-based electrolyser manufactures at increased scales of over 1,000 units a year can see CAPEX reductions of 50%, with high-pressure systems also able to reduce the levelised cost of hydrogen by up to 5%; the fact that use of new component materials and optimum designs to drive efficiency gains can see the levelised cost of hydrogen by 15%, with thinner membranes, better catalysts and higher temperature operation able to improve PEM energy efficiency from between 65-72% to 82% by 2050; and how quick win cost savings can be achieved through optimising the operation of electrolysers as, running them at 40-60% load can result in efficiency savings of up to 10%.
When it comes to blue hydrogen, meanwhile, it noted it as being relatively mature and having a limited lifespan before green production takes over within the UK. Key challenges include the high nature gas consumption, energy intensity and associated CCS costs, with the report emphasising the importance of immediate disruption as, given this is a time-limited market, few innovative improvements can be made.
With blue hydrogen looking set to be dominant over the next 10 years and prove key to enabling a hydrogen economy, immediate changes are needed, including raising efficiencies for leading production methods to showcase them at scale to the world. This includes optimising existing leading production methods, such as ATR, which can be optimised over the short-term and then scaled rapidly.
The report further advocates for quick action to disrupt the undeveloped blue hydrogen market to achieve the 50% levelised cost of hydrogen reduction target, explaining that the development of next-generation hydrogen production methods such as pyrolysis are essential to disrupt the market and advance the development of blue hydrogen.
It also, similarly to green hydrogen, is calling for there to be test and demonstration centres established that can accelerate the development of affordable technology. It set out how governmental sponsorship of these centres now would result in rapid improvements in the production of blue hydrogen through reforming for the short-term, while improving pyrolysis production processes for implementation over the longer term.
Further opportunities to drive change and de-risk blue hydrogen include reducing midstream costs and enabling technology penetration through decentralised production, with potential to develop steam methane reforming and pyrolysis at small scales in remote hubs, as well as integrating blue hydrogen with CCS plants to enable steam generation optimisation and heat recovery, developing digital twin methodology across existing technologies to help drive cost reductions, and the implementation of green electrification of high-power units as means of leveraging UK strengths in design and integration to help optimise blue hydrogen production.
The report also looks at the hydrogen midstream, which is set to prove essential to distributing the 10GW of low carbon hydrogen targeted for 2030, both inland and internationally.
Innovations to help drive efficiencies and cost improvements here include developing existing ammonia and liquid organic hydrogen carrier (LOHC) processes to help minimise conversion losses and reduce conversion costs; for supply chains to be designed to ensure the production and distribution of hydrogen can be streamlined, with it noted that ammonia, gaseous hydrogen, liquid hydrogen and LOHCs all need different methods of transportation, leading to a varying in delivery costs; and for technology and design enhancements of transportation and storage equipment to be developed, helping to improve the safety and efficiency of the distribution network.
It further highlighted the opportunity to enable cost-competitive retrofitting of vessels and existing pipelines here, with fibre-reinforced polymer composites and thermoplastics lighter and stronger components than steel, and also having the added benefit of not embrittling; the fact existing thermoplastic research will help to lower the cost of these materials; and how existing work being undertaken by National Grid will aid the retrofit of pipelines with new materials to build a hydrogen backbone in the UK.