Hydrogen: A “hot topic” in renewable energy

28 August 2020

Author: Le-ann Campbell
Practice Area: Energy and Renewables

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With the energy transition progressing, hydrogen is a “hot topic” in the shift to clean energy.

Hydrogen as an energy carrier is not a new concept. However, in the last few years the use of hydrogen as part of the solution to the green energy transition has gained real momentum. The pathways of policy makers, industry and technology developers around the globe are likely to converge and culminate in substantial progress in clean hydrogen.

In June 2019, the UK became the first major economy to commit to a 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This ‘net zero’ target represented a significant step-change in the commitment to addressing the climate crisis. In Ireland, the Climate Action Plan 2019 states that 70% of electricity will be generated from renewable sources by 2030. Whilst Northern Ireland has not yet set a target, the move to clean energy generation is well underway with nearly 47% of total electricity generated in the last 12 months being derived from renewable sources. It has been reported that Northern Ireland can currently operate the grid with up to 65% of renewable power. By 2030, this must increase to 95%.

On 8 July 2020, the European Commission (the “Commission“) published its European Hydrogen Strategy (the “Hydrogen Strategy“) and launched the industry-led European Clean Hydrogen Alliance. The Hydrogen Strategy sets out the Commission’s vision for how the EU can harness the power of hydrogen to achieve its commitments to decarbonise the continent and transition to clean energy by 2050.

Whilst the UK and its devolved governments have not yet set a Hydrogen strategy in place, there is resounding opinion among trade bodies, environmentalists and technology experts that the integration of hydrogen fuel into low-carbon energy mix is essential for the UK (and Northern Ireland) to meet its climate commitments.

What is “clean” Hydrogen?

Whether hydrogen is “clean” depends on its source and production. Hydrogen is principally categorised in two ways; "blue hydrogen" made from natural gas and other fossil fuels, mitigated by carbon capture, use and storage and "green hydrogen" made by turning surplus energy produced by renewable energy technologies at times of low demand into a fuel that can be stored and transported. The term “clean” hydrogen covers both the green and blue production methods.

What are the uses of Hydrogen?

The versatility of hydrogen and its multiple utilisation is why hydrogen is best placed to contribute to decarbonisation of existing economies. Hydrogen can be utilised in power, heat, industry, transport, aviation, feedstock and storage applications. It can be burnt in a similar way to natural gas or used to generate power and heat in a fuel cell which, importantly, has zero carbon emissions at use. While the potential applications for hydrogen are wide and varied, there has been significant investment in Northern Ireland in hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, buses and refuelling stations which are set to transform the transport sector.

Is Northern Ireland equip to grow a Hydrogen economy?

Onshore wind has been and continues to be a crucial energy source in Northern Ireland with 85% of renewable generation coming from wind. Therefore, the optimisation of onshore wind energy should be at the heart of any new energy policy for Northern Ireland. Using the process of electrolysis at times when the output of renewable energy (i.e. wind) is higher than the demand for electricity – something which has occurred more frequently during lockdown when many businesses and companies were forced to, temporarily, close their doors – could be a valuable opportunity cost. Using electrolysis at such times can be a way of storing renewable energy as hydrogen gas and avoiding grid constraints.The hydrogen gas can then be used to meet periods of increased electricity demand, by converting it back into electricity using fuel cell technology.

Minister for Economy Diane Dodds announced on 10 July, that she believes in a green recovery and on pioneering the opportunity that hydrogen presents. She confirmed that the Executive are currently working with the UK Government to make sure Northern Ireland can make the most of UK-wide funding and support, and are producing and resourcing a new Energy Strategy for Northern Ireland, ‘joined up’ with input from across governments, which will develop policy for the role of hydrogen in achieving net zero emissions in Northern Ireland.

There's clearly a role for hydrogen to play in Northern Ireland achieving its 'net-zero' target, particularly for the heating and transport sectors. However, in order for companies and investors to commit to hydrogen-based opportunities, there needs to be clarity and robust commitment from the Executive as regards how it will support the development of the hydrogen economy in Northern Ireland, both financially and politically.

How can we help?

Please contact our Energy team members or your usual Carson McDowell contact for further information on hydrogen related projects or to discuss any potential renewable energy opportunities for your business.

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