The emerging hydrogen economy and Net Zero
Momentum is building around hydrogen as a keystone technology for the transition to a Net Zero economy, and over the last 18 months it has been propelled to the forefront of the decarbonisation agenda.
To meet the statutory target of Net Zero emissions by 2050, low-carbon electricity generation of all kinds will need to be deployed at scale, either to support significantly increased electrification or to facilitate a new low-carbon energy economy in hydrogen. On the supply side, the 2050 Net Zero target simply will not be met without both these activities making a full contribution.
The timing and scale at which baseload generators will be needed to support hydrogen deployment will depend on technology commercialisation pathways and policy measures that have yet to be defined. In this context, BEIS ministers are agnostic about the colour of hydrogen used – but they want to see the development of a wide range of applications. Hydrogen development across a range of vectors – including the key sectors of heating and transport – is likely to initially grow out of local conditions and lead to the formation of clusters with strong regional characteristics.
The East of England already has strong foundations to support early deployment of a hydrogen cluster, with the focus of attention to date being on the development of blue hydrogen production in conjunction with carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) in the Southern North Sea. But the region has already developed large offshore wind and nuclear facilities that could dovetail with electrolysis to produce low-carbon hydrogen, and this clean energy capacity is set to increase dramatically.
As hydrogen production needs to build up incrementally in line with hydrogen demand, we expect that small-scale dispersed electrolysis will typify the first wave of developments that we will see. As such, we strongly support the plans being developed by Sizewell C to establish up to 10MW of hydrogen production capacity in conjunction with the facility at Sizewell B (which can then be added to later). The immediate attraction of this new capability rests on its ability to decarbonise construction of Sizewell C, but also on the potential to supply local first-movers in the transition to hydrogen-powered heat and transport.
Hydrogen and nuclear
Nuclear power stations, at present, are typically high-capacity baseload electricity generators located near to the coast. They also produce large quantities of excess heat (as steam). Both the scale and operating conditions create strong synergies with hydrogen production, and the technology for doing so is already available today.
We see four important differentiating characteristics about hydrogen produced in conjunction with nuclear energy.
If the ‘high hydrogen’ scenarios from latest government and industry forecasts are to come to pass, many GW of electricity generation capacity will need to be dedicated for green hydrogen production. The recent Nuclear Industry Association Hydrogen Roadmap suggests that 12-13GW of nuclear reactors would be needed to supply 75TWh of green hydrogen (around a third of the production in high hydrogen scenarios). Similar estimates from France suggest that the equivalent of four nuclear power stations would be required to provide electricity for hydrogen production.
Early electrolysis projects also require high load factors to ensure that the green hydrogen is produced cost effectively. This means that, for first wave projects, low-carbon baseload generation may be preferable to intermittent renewables such as wind to enable early deployment at scale.
Nuclear stations produce a lot of heat, which in turn can be used for high-temperature steam electrolysis. This offers significant energy savings over conventional methods of production. They will also make good locations for testing other solutions with high heat requirements, including solid-oxide electrolysers, which are already operating and in the early stages of commercialisation.
Producing hydrogen through electrolysis requires large volumes of water. Much of East Anglia has an average annual rainfall below 700mm, and the region includes some of the driest locations in the UK. To address this, there will be a need to develop large-scale desalination plant. Nuclear generation is often located by the coast and these sites offer strategically important locations for such facilities.
Hydrogen and Sizewell
Sizewell is an established facility and already an important strategic site, and the surrounding coastal region would make an excellent location for development of green hydrogen capability.
As well as the general synergies between hydrogen and nuclear generation, the plans being developed by EDF Energy at Sizewell align well with our wider ambitions at Hydrogen East to help develop Norfolk and Suffolk into a leading hydrogen region. Although East Anglia does not feature many high-emitting industrial complexes that are being targeted by emerging hydrogen clusters in other parts of the UK, there are priority sectors that could achieve significant emissions reductions by adopting hydrogen-based solutions.
Hydrogen East has already identified significant potential use across heavier vehicles, agriculture, food-processing and flexible power generation. We also believe that transport, for municipal fleets, road freight and specific local rail lines will form an early priority workstream for growing hydrogen demand in the region given its dispersed populations and transport networks.
The electricity distribution network in Norfolk and parts of Suffolk also offer opportunities to develop electrolysers that bring energy system flexibility on a place-specific basis.
This potential is reflected in the provisional hydrogen hub plans being scoped by Freeport East and Lowestoft among others, which see opportunities in port-side operation vehicles as well as surface freight refuelling and low-carbon shipping. There are other opportunities emerging around municipal waste facilities, which are likely to see early hydrogen deployment.
Sizewell is located less than 10 miles from both the A12, one of the primary road arteries in the region, and the railway line between Lowestoft and Ipswich, as well as several council-owned depots. It also sits between the major ports of Felixstowe and Harwich to the south and Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth to the north. This means that hydrogen produced near the Sizewell site would only need to be transported short distances to reach end-users with potentially sizeable demand.
EDF Energy is already a major employer in the area, and it has extensive engineering capabilities and connections. This means that hydrogen developments at Sizewell will help to establish a blueprint for the skills and specialisms needed to optimise cross-sector hydrogen projects going forward.
Beyond the provision of low-carbon electricity and hydrogen production, there are also indirect ways in which activity at Sizewell will support the transition to Net Zero in Norfolk and Suffolk. As well as its market leading move to develop electrolysers, the Sizewell C team are exploring the potential to deploy Direct Air Capture technology to remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere. This could be integrated with CCUS storage reservoirs in the Southern North Sea off the coast from Bacton and help to abate emissions from other hard-to-reach sectors. And there are also further, exciting possibilities from combining hydrogen and captured CO2 to produce synthetic fuels.
We look forward to continuing to work with EDF Energy and the Sizewell C team as they develop their plans, and we are both excited about the imminent issue of the Government’s Hydrogen Strategy over the summer months. Together we are hoping to continue to identify credible hydrogen pathways that make a notable contribution to realisation of the strategy.
To enable this, it is essential that the right policy mechanisms are established that facilitate the nuclear industry to play a potentially pivotal role in establishment of a regional hydrogen economy, supporting the shared goals of decarbonisation and clean growth in the East Anglian economy.
4 June 2021