The Shift to Renewables – Green Hydrogen as One Piece of a Complex Puzzle
The energy transition is well underway, with renewables gradually becoming more cost-effective and prevalent. The role of green hydrogen in this transition is still being explored, but there are many potential benefits that could make it a key part of the future energy mix. In this episode of the Anticipate Podcast, Richard Lappin, Power Generation Technical Director at WSP in the Middle East is joined by Mike Theobald, Energy Transition Director at WSP UK to discuss the implications of the current energy transition and how green hydrogen can be part of a more sustainable energy mix.
Richard: Hello Mike. As Director of Energy Transition in the UK, you’ve obviously and undoubtedly seen the progressive shift towards renewables over the last ten years. From a UK perspective, what form is this transition taking?
Mike: A few years ago, we had a predominance of coal-fired power stations and oil-fired power stations in the UK. Now, they’ve largely been removed from the energy mix. We set out our plans that it started, like lots of other countries with onshore wind and solar. There’s still quite a lot happening in relation to onshore wind, but the big growth areas are now moving towards offshore wind. However, the energy transition will mean very different things for different regions as each region will have its way of maximising its resources. So, you can’t really look at the UK as a model for everywhere. The Middle East will have a very different model for reaching its targets.
Richard: Presumably, the choice of the form of renewable energy is going to be dependent on the prevailing conditions and accessibility to technology, but what role might existing infrastructure play? And what are other influences that might drive the technology choice?
Mike: Two centuries ago, we had the industrial revolution. We’re seeing now an energy revolution compressed into a much shorter period of time. The climate we’re seeing in front of us is driving the need to move very rapidly. I think we have to use the existing infrastructures as best as we possibly can. There’s already a lot of carbon sunk infrastructure that could be reused for the energy transition. The hydrogen cycle, for instance, is going to need a huge amount of infrastructure, both in generating and distributing hydrogen to the off-takers. Such reuse may make perfect sense in some industries and some offtake sectors, but in others, it may make less sense in doing so. If we focus on the blue hydrogen, for instance, there’s the potential to reuse a significant amount of the existing infrastructure. We’ve got gas pipelines in place that have been built with hydrogen in mind for quite some time. But it’s when we get further out into the non-industrial areas where we’re going to really struggle with hydrogen distribution. Hydrogen as an energy storage and transport tool is not going to be an efficient way forward for some sectors and some off-takes. If we look at using green hydrogen for transport, it has to go through quite a lot of conversion processes. If we use excess wind power to generate hydrogen through the use of electrolysis, then we have to transport that hydrogen to a regional storage facility… Whether that’s small or large, it has then to go into a fuel cell or, and that fuel cell then converts it back into electricity, which then is used for the electric vehicle. So, there are quite inefficient energy transfer processes in place. We need to look at where the original energy is coming from (whether it’s offshore wind, onshore wind or solar) and how we can best use that energy for the offtake requirements, whether it’s EVs, industrial heating, domestic heating, or power generation.
Green hydrogen has to go through a lot of conversion processes before it can be used in the transport sector. That is why, we always have to consider the offtake requirements for every energy form.
Richard: What about the grid infrastructure? I presume that it’s going to be necessary in the future. Instead of building additional capacity, some countries may draw upon neighbouring countries in terms of exchanging power. How do you see that?
Mike: Energy trading is definitely going to play an increasingly important part in neighbouring regions’ energy and energy mix. There’s a lot of discussion about taking solar power from one region to another. The more dispersed the areas are, the more chance that you have for regions that aren’t necessarily sunny at a particular point in time to benefit through that interconnectivity with other regions that do have high availability of sun. It’s the same for things like offshore wind. There has been a big build-out of offshore wind in the North Sea, around the UK. But when it’s less windy in the North Sea, it is probably going to be windier elsewhere. So, the more we can geographically separate the renewable sources from each other and engage in energy trading, the better we utilize our energy and probably the less we will need interim energy storage. Because it’s going to take a long time to build out this connected infrastructure, we will need to further develop technologies such as conventional battery storage and pumped storage to support the next ten years of renewable generation.
Richard: And in terms of storage, is that going to be in the form of fuel cells? What’s the form of storage for the future?
We will have to evaluate the most beneficial storage type for regions within the UK and regions within other countries. Because what will make sense say for the north of the UK will not make sense for the UK southern areas. We’re seeing huge growth in traditional battery storage. Battery chemistry is probably going to change. There has been a big ramp-up based upon lithium-ion technology. But you know, that may not be the most prevalent battery chemistry over the next few years. Battery chemistry technology is evolving extremely quickly. And suddenly the ability to store energy per unit is going to be increased. However, one of the conundrums with battery storage is that you know, what may be good for mobile phones may not be good for a grid-scale battery storage system as they’ve got very different drivers. In a mobile phone, you need to have a battery that is light and compact, whereas if you use a battery storage system in an industrial zone, being light and compact is not necessarily the key driver.
Richard: In the Middle East, we’re seeing a trend towards exporting hydrogen-related products such as ammonia. How do you see that, especially in terms of energy conversion costs?
Mike: Well, I think anything to do with hydrogen is not going to be around the same cost as what we’ve typically seen energy to cost. I think this is probably where we need to reset our expectations on what the value of energy actually is. For quite a long time, we were able to use the atmosphere as a trash bin for CO2 and other emissions. We’re now valuing our environment and atmosphere, and there’s a cost associated with that. I think, generally and unfortunately, we are going to have to get used to much higher energy costs, because the ease of access to energy for whatever purpose and whatever offtake is going to be less. So, although hydrogen is in ascendancy, it is not going to be without its problems.
For quite a long time, we were able to use the atmosphere as a trash bin for CO2 and other emissions. We now value our environment and atmosphere, and there’s a cost associated with that.
Richard: I see that there’s a move towards trying to have bus fleets, for example, run on hydrogen. Is hydrogen really going to play a role in the future transport energy demand?
Mike: I think it is very hard to hedge against batteries now being able to cement their position in the transport infrastructure sector. But it will all depend on how fast the different battery chemistries will go beyond proof of concept to a scalable solution. The move towards solid-state batteries, for instance, is expected to triple or quadruple the energy storage capacity of batteries that we recognize in any electric vehicle today. So you can either go four times longer, or you can have a battery that’s four times smaller. Hydrogen is, in many ways, a mature technology. We know that for any given size of electrolyzer, you’ll get so much hydrogen out of it. It’s good to see that we have been evaluating and rolling out hydrogen into many different areas. Hydrogen may not make it to a large embedded state within the transport infrastructure. But it will have its place in industrial sectors that require a lot of heat. I can see there is a benefit that there has been a benefit to switching from gas to a hydrogen fuel source for those industries.
Richard: With regard to the general shift to renewables, obviously, that you mentioned earlier, it’s going to have some impact on energy prices, and we’re going to get used to paying more for energy potentially. Are there any mitigants in that regard? Is there anything else that can be done to minimize pricing?
Mike: Well, ultimately the price of energy is going to always trickle down to the consumer. Governments can subsidize to a certain level, but ultimately that subsidization needs to come from somewhere. I think it is going to be more costly to obtain energy over the next 10 to 15 years. But the expectation is, once we have managed to build in all the required additional infrastructure, the energy prices will start to come down again.
Richard: From a future perspective, do you actually see renewables being the majority component in the energy generation mix for countries or is it going to still be a sort of 20 to 30% niche?
Mike: I fully anticipate that the endpoint for the energy transition will be predominantly renewable-based or an abated place. But the needs of Africa, for instance, are very different to the needs of the UK, which are very different to the needs of the Middle East. And the ability for those regions to adopt certain technologies is going to be very different as well. In the 20-year outlook, we are still going to see gas play a significant part in the energy mix globally. We are anticipating that the gas-fired power stations will go through CO2 abatement via carbon capture and sequestration so the net effect of that energy generation will be similar to a renewable source.
We are anticipating that gas-fired power stations will go through CO2 abatement via carbon capture and sequestration so the net effect of that energy generation will be similar to a renewable source.
Richard: That actually was going to be my next question. If abatement comes in, and it’s as clean as a renewable generator, then, of course, you’d expect that production of gas turbines, etc. to continue. But in order to consider a gas turbine, you need to put a whole raft of abatement on the back end of it and there’s a cost associated with that. Will this mean that the fossil-fired generation from gas will become a relatively small component of the generation mix?
Mike: Yeah, we’re starting to talk about cost again. I think we cannot ignore what we have been ignoring for decades, ever since the industrial revolution. We can’t ignore the environmental impact on our atmosphere. But we have been working with 8 Rivers substantially over the last eight years on a technology that can get inherent CO2 captured for lower capital cost. So, I think the, there are more answers out there than carrying on with the gas-fired power generation. Nuclear fusion is another technology that is rapidly advancing. We have now proof of concept and early-stage pilot plants expected to be the final step before commercially sized facilities in the UK which might happen within the next two years.
Richard: Mike, thank you very much for the podcast today. I really enjoyed our chat. And to our listeners, thanks for listening all the way through. Please leave a comment if today’s discussion sparked your interest or if there are any burning issues that you think we didn’t address during our discussion. And don’t forget to join us in two weeks for another talk.
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