Hydrogen and East Anglia – a continuing clean energy success story?


Addressing the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the East of England on 4 November, Hydrogen East director Nigel Cornwall summarised how the region is a frontrunner in contributing to meet the UK’s Net Zero carbon target and highlighted his organisation’s plans for assisting the region in its aim of being the UK’s Clean Growth region.

East Anglia already an energy powerhouse

The East of England already has exceptional foundations on which to build. It is at the heart of the world’s largest market for offshore wind, hosting over half of GB’s operational fleet and capacity growth in the pipeline. Elsewhere in the region, nearly 200MW of battery storage projects have been granted permission to build, and there are already 55 solar projects with over 570MW of capacity (in addition to abundant small-scale installations). It is also leading the way on energy-from-waste and biomethane injection.

There is a hub of new nuclear in Suffolk and North Essex. The 1.2GW Sizewell B site currently powers about 8% of UK homes. Subject to final government approvals, the planned 3.2GW Sizewell C station could also provide the backbone of an electricity system that is increasingly intermittent. It could also provide a template for how to integrate new innovative technologies with baseload generation.

Equally important, the Southern North Sea (SNS) is the UK’s gas capital, with 30% of national requirements entering via Bacton. As the UK transitions to a Net Zero economy, there are enormous opportunities to repurpose the existing offshore assets and redeploy the skilled workforce to bring forward new technologies such as carbon capture and storage and hydrogen production. In fact, East Anglia offers access to Europe’s largest potential CO₂ storage network.

Finally, there is also the ability to access continental markets through the Interconnector UK and BBL pipelines to Belgium and the Netherlands respectively.

Making a major contribution to the regional economy

The current and future impact of the energy industry on the region is profound.

In 2019, there were over 800 businesses and 11,800 employees working in offshore energy locally. Given the growing offshore wind fleet, the operation and maintenance opportunities alone are forecast to reach £1.3bn by 2025. Across the full suite of energy projects, we could see over £59bn of capital investment across the East of England by 2040. Extensive investment in the region in skills is already underway, with flagship projects such as the £11.4mn Energy Skills Centre in Lowestoft working to build-up a skilled energy workforce for the future.

These factors in combination have led the New Anglia LEP to describe East Anglia as the UK’s Clean Growth Region, and it has set out a programme in its Local Industrial Strategy targeting further clean energy, digitalisation and agri-tech development as three key growth markets.

What about hydrogen?

The Local Industrial Strategy name-checked hydrogen as an area of possible early development but it was light on detail. That is not a criticism as, in the two years since its publication, national and global interest in hydrogen has grown exponentially. And then came the adoption of the Net Zero target in summer 2018, which is requiring all of us to consider the scale and depth of the change needed to abate climate deterioration and adaptation.

Which is why I formed Hydrogen East with Johnathan Reynolds of Opergy earlier this year. Hydrogen East is not a trade association or member services company. We are an independent research body that wants to improve understanding of the emerging hydrogen market and promote its uses in the regional economy.

We both believe that hydrogen has immense potential in helping to meet the 2050 Net Zero target. Its neither feasible or desirable to “electrify everything”, and targeted hydrogen deployment in electricity, heating and transport is the most likely available pathway to closing the emissions abatement gap especially on “hard-to-reach sectors” in energy and transport use.

Many other regions are increasingly holding the view that hydrogen could be a key component in their own energy transitions, with Germany, Spain, Japan, Canada and Australia (among others) adopting aggressive hydrogen support and development policies. From an industrial strategy and innovation perspective – as well as a carbon abatement perspective – it is critical that the UK doesn’t get left behind.

The good news is that the East of England already has an abundance of assets and infrastructure that can be developed or repurposed; against this we don’t have heavy industry or many large industrial loads to drive this forward. So we need to think differently about the opportunities and possible pathways.

In the context of the East of England that means looking to identify pockets of potential hydrogen demand across different economic sectors, aggregating them and linking them with increasing hydrogen availability.  It is a bottom-up strategy, centred on a place-based approach, and consolidating demand. There is a trade-off between building scale and emerging supply options, be they through the use of blue hydrogen in existing networks or green hydrogen produced by electrolysers, powered by a combination of surplus wind, solar or nuclear production. 

What is Hydrogen East doing?

We only launched in late July, but so far we have identified three priority target workstreams, all of which we are hoping to fully scope throughout 2021.

The first we call the Bacton-SNS Clean Energy Hub (or Bacton 2.0). This looks to develop the aging Bacton gas terminal site through use of CCS in the SNS as well as the production and transportation of blue hydrogen using existing onshore and offshore gas assets to stimulate supply and accelerate decarbonisation of the existing gas system. Over time this could be combined with a transition to deployment of green hydrogen mainly from offshore wind, with potential siting of electrolysers close to, or on, gas platforms. But a key objective is to understand the linkage between offshore and onshore and what is physically possible, and then to identify how and when the green hydrogen economy based predominantly around additional offshore wind development can be accelerated.

We are close to having secured the necessary funding to take this workstream forward later this month.

The second workstream is a similar concept around use of production from Sizewell, and possibly over time the new development at Sizewell C, to drive electrolysers with hydrogen output being used for transport and heating as part of a Sizewell-Leiston Clean Energy Hub. EDF Energy is already looking at the possibility of building a demonstration electrolyser to help it fuel diggers and construction vehicles and other forms of local transport to help decarbonise Sizewell construction. There is also an important opportunity to tie in with activities at the East Coast ports.

We are hoping to scope this workstream in detail in early 2021.

The third workstream, which we launched late October, is called the New Anglia Clean Transport Hub. It entails supply of hydrogen for use in agriculture, food processing and transport in West Suffolk where there are emerging plans to switch over refuse wagons, agricultural vehicles but also buses.

Looking beyond that, there are rail lines in the east of Norfolk and Suffolk that are earmarked for conversion to hydrogen use, as well as opportunities for using hydrogen to power leisure boats on the Broads. Over the longer term, hydrogen (and associated ammonia) production could be a key strategic move for use by shipping at the East Coast ports, including Felixstowe. This might also fuel the boats involved in future offshore wind construction.

A bright outlook

In conclusion, these are early days in a very exciting project that is as far as we can see different to other hydrogen assessment and development programmes in the UK. We are focused on aggregating and scaling demand locally and developing an empirical place-based approach, building up from detailed spatial mapping work of the existing economy and infrastructure. We are learning as we go along, but so far have achieved a high level of interest and buy-in from regional stakeholders.

But what is clear is that the East of England will continue to offer real opportunities for the development of a regional hydrogen economy because of its unique access to existing and future energy assets and infrastructure. It has many economic sectors that can be decarbonised through steady roll-out of hydrogen, especially in agriculture, transport (HGVs, rail and shipping) and, in certain places, heating.

Only through successful deployment of hydrogen will we be able to hit Net Zero and the regional aim to be the UK’s Clean Growth Region. But the outlook looks better than promising. Follow Nigel on @HydrogenEast but also for more general clean energy and innovation updates on @NewAngliaEnergy.

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