Future energy system will rely on hydrogen


Hydrogen production has been named as one of three industries still in their infancy that the UK’s future energy system will be heavily reliant on.

On 7 September, Atkins published a paper, Race to Net Zero, in which it analysed the Committee on Climate Change (CCC)’s net zero scenario. It explored both the build rate and number of units required to meet the 2050 target, along with areas that urgently require significant government investment. It found the UK is only achieving 43% of the required build rate. By 2050, it needs 6,520 offshore wind turbines, 48 natural gas units, 66 biomass facilities, and six nuclear power stations.

With 30 years left, the paper compared it to running a marathon, though warned that the task ahead is huge and “no one wins after falling a mile behind in the first 30 minutes.”

It further stressed that there are uncertainties, even in well performing sectors of the economy, with policy lacking. The UK will have to replace or repower almost all current generating capacity, while also building almost twice as much to meet the anticipated increase in demand. Output will have to be doubled to well over 600TWh per annum, with the paper stating that the anticipated 2050 generating capacity must start being built now.

This will include an entirely new system of carbon capture storage (CCS) – with capacity four times today’s global capability – and new hydrogen infrastructure. These, along with energy storage, were highlighted as three industries the future energy system will rely on. Based on analysis of the CCC’s net zero scenario, the paper said a hydrogen industry and infrastructure capable of delivering 30% of energy demand is required. The majority of production is set to be dependent on CCS – which itself will be responsible for delivering 40% of the nation’s energy and will underpin the system.

The CCC estimated that 30 to 60 methane reforming hydrogen production plants with CCS are needed. It will also call for 200-700 electrolyser units which, combined, could produce 7Mt per year of hydrogen. The required rate for building hydrogen production and infrastructure, according to the paper, is 0.23Mt per year.

The paper warned “we should be worried” about the three key industries: hydrogen, CCS and energy storage. Storage plans are yet to be determined, though in the case of hydrogen and CCS, it said the current build rate is effectively zero. Furthermore, with the government intending to have the option to deploy CCS at scale from the mid-2030s, it stressed this would be implementing the most critical part of the net zero strategy at a time when the race is half over.

Government intervention and support will be needed for there to be large-scale hydrogen and CCS projects. It called for the UK’s building programme to be accelerated and for all technologies to be brought forward without upper limits imposed on a specific solution.

It further recommended the establishment of an energy system architect (ESA) which would be responsible for planning and optimising the 2050 energy system, as well as evaluating the whole life cost. The ESA would set a broad framework with likely bands of capacity for each technology in an integrated system. The plan would be flexible enough to respond to changing conditions, though would give the market confidence in a likely minimum requirement for each technology.