With the potential to power industries and transport which cannot yet be electrified, green hydrogen is an emerging sector where trailblazing technological breakthroughs are being fully utilised by ScottishPower in the country's drive towards reducing carbon emissions, discovers Andrew Collier

 

The future of the planet is going to have to be a low carbon one, and that’s about a lot more than electric vehicles and wind farms. Other forms of sustainable fuel also have a critical role, and one of the most important of these will be green hydrogen.

Not everything can be electrified. Some forms of transport and industrial processes will continue to need to run on gas, which is where this form of hydrogen – clean, affordable and completely free of CO2 – will be the optimal solution.

ScottishPower is working to become a leader in this area and is the first fully integrated energy company to generate 100% green electricity. It sees green hydrogen as the next step on its journey and is now well advanced in its plans for a rollout of this.

“We feel that we’re very much at the start of an emerging sector”, says Barry Carruthers, the company’s Hydrogen Director. “We’re making great strides with these technologies to accelerate the move to net zero. The more tools we have in the box, the faster we can move through the decarbonisation journey.”

Unlike conventional grey and so-called blue hydrogen – the latter reduces the amount of fossil fuels used in production but does not eliminate them entirely – green hydrogen is produced through the electrolysis of water and, if produced using renewable energy, is virtually emissions free. 

“We believe that zero means zero”, says Mr Carruthers. “What is really exciting is the fact that we can build hydrogen production facilities based on our existing renewable assets – onshore and offshore wind and solar.”

While the purchase and use of electric vehicles (EVs) is growing exponentially, this form of clean power, while highly energy efficient, is less suited to use by heavy duty forms of transport such as bin lorries, marine vessels and ferries and even some aviation. 

Green hydrogen has many of the advantages of diesel and petrol – vehicles using it can easily and quickly be refuelled through a pump – but with none of the damaging emissions. 

“There is also a market in providing hydrogen to industrial clients in areas such as manufacturing, food and drink, chemicals and refining – anyone who uses it within their processes, as a gas molecule for example.”

ScottishPower is working on a portfolio of projects using green hydrogen production units of varying sizes. “We can produce it exactly where it’s required. It can be at a factory or industrial plant, or at a bus refuelling depot in the centre of a town.

“We use renewable electricity to power the electrolyser. That can be anywhere and can be as small as a shipping container. However, if we co-locate at windfarms, we can build much bigger facilities.

“These will bring us greater economies of scale and with these bigger plants we may be looking at a hub and spoke distribution model, though pipelines or via tankers.”

Having developed the concept, the company is moving quickly to bring it to market, explains Barry Carruthers. 

“We aim to be in production by the end of 2022 and certainly at a large scale right across the country by 2023. There are hydrogen vehicles such as buses and bin lorries in operation across the UK right now.”

Green hydrogen is unlikely to ever be the main source of carbon-free energy – it is calculated that some 85 to 90 per cent of the economy can be supplied through electrification. But it will fulfil a vital role in areas where use of this form of power is going to be challenging.

This new form of hydrogen is likely to be the ideal energy source for vehicles with very heavy duty cycles requiring the kind of rapid fuelling turnaround that would not be possible with batteries.

It can also provide the range needed to allow transport assets such as coaches and long range logistics lorries to easily travel the whole length of the country. “These vehicles will be able to refuel in 10 minutes and then set off on another 400 mile long journey.

“Across the UK and Ireland, we are currently looking at more than 20 key projects with a pipeline of more than 500 megawatts as our main focus. As we move to larger ventures in the second half of the decade, we want to align with the growth of offshore wind. That could lead up to production of gigawatt-scale green hydrogen supply across the country

All this, Mr Carruthers concedes, is going to mean some large scale investment. “Over the next one to two years, we would expect to be putting in tens of millions of pounds, and by the end of the 2020s, that could be heading towards hundreds of millions.”

Another advantage of using green hydrogen is that existing conventionally fuelled forms of transport need not be redundant – they can be retro-fitted. “At the same time, brand new vehicles up to 44-tonne HGVs running on this are on sale now.

“What is needed now is to invest in the infrastructure at the same time as companies are investing in these vehicles, and that’s what we are doing. Then businesses spending on fleets of perhaps 1000 or 2000 of these vehicles will know that they can refuel at major strategic points.”

Moving into this market is a completely logical and natural progression for ScottishPower, Barry Carruthers says. “We’ve done a great job so far in decarbonising using renewable electricity, and now we 
are working to take on the whole challenge. 

“The customers need this to happen, and it’s incumbent on companies like ours to make those big steps. We are passionate about making sure that we are moving as fast as possible on this.”

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Green hydrogen: how it works and why it’s a cleaner energy

DECARBONISATION is the most important goal across the world and requires substantial efforts in the way we generate and use our energy.

Along with using renewable technologies to produce clean electricity, another important step is decarbonising the production of a useful element like hydrogen – specifically producing ‘green hydrogen’. 

HeraldScotland:

A multi-partner plan including ScottishPower and The Port of Cromarty Firth has been launched to establish a green hydrogen hub in the Highlands

 

Hydrogen is a chemical element and although there are almost no natural resources of pure hydrogen, it can be manufactured. 

Just like electricity, hydrogen is an energy carrier that can be easily stored or transported to where it is needed. 

Currently there are three different types of hydrogen production and they are differentiated by colour – grey, blue and green. 

Green hydrogen is produced when renewable energy is used to derive the hydrogen from a clean source, rather than one that emits carbon. 

This most commonly involves the electrolysis of water — sending an electric current through the water to separate molecules.

In order for hydrogen to be truly green hydrogen, the electricity used to break down water into the two elements must be produced from renewable sources, such as onshore wind.

Currently a hydrogen production facility is being planned at Whitelee Windfarm on the outskirts of Glasgow, the UK’s largest onshore windfarm. 

This will see electricity generated by a planned solar farm and battery energy storage scheme alongside its 215 turbines used to produce green hydrogen on site, making it 100% green.

This method of obtaining hydrogen could save the 830 million tonnes of CO2 that are emitted annually when this gas is produced using fossil fuels according to the International Energy Agency.

In contrast, production of grey hydrogen, usually from natural gas, throws off carbon waste while blue hydrogen can be cleaner, it still sees the emissions of carbon produced during the production process captured and stored, or reused. Hydrogen is a zero-carbon fuel, which means it does not emit polluting gases either during combustion or during production.

It’s also easy to store, which allows it to be used subsequently for other purposes and at times other than immediately after its production.

And it can be transformed into electricity or synthetic gas and used for domestic, commercial, industrial or mobility purposes. 

In the future, it is believed that low carbon hydrogen could provide cleaner energy for everything bin lorries to distilleries, film shoots to power plants, waste trucks to steel production and diggers, making it an essential technology to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and reduce the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels.