What role will hydrogen play in green Covid-19 recovery plans?

Plans for major hydrogen facilities in Norway and the Isle of Wight have been unveiled this week, as business giants, banks and green campaigners call on world leaders to include hydrogen investment in their Covid-19 recovery plans.

Pictured: An artist's impression of the proposed Norwegian facility. Image: Norsk e-fuel

Pictured: An artist's impression of the proposed Norwegian facility. Image: Norsk e-fuel

The first of the two facilities, proposed by a consortium of European businesses called Norsk e-fuel, is expected to come online in Herøya 2023, producing 10 million litres of hydrogen annually. This output will be predominantly used by the aviation industry.

The consortium – comprising carbon capture firm Climeworks, investment firm Valinor, wind developer Nosk Vind, steel manufacturer Paul Wurth and energy technology provider Sunfire - is planning to operate the facility using 100% renewable energy.

Should the facility prove a success, the business consortium has developed plans to upscale its production capacity tenfold by 2026. An expanded plant, it claims, could mitigate the emission of 250,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Plans for the initial facility have been submitted and plans for the expanded plant are now “well underway”, the consortium said in a statement. The expansion would likely consist not of increasing the size of the initial facility, but of the creation of a national network of similar facilities, in a bid to spread out job creation.

By submitting plans for the facility, the consortium could be seen as kick-starting a race for low-carbon aviation fuel production in Europe.  

Ørsted and Copenhagen Airport, along with Maersk, DSV Panalpina, DFDS and SAS are currently collaborating to develop a hydrogen and sustainable transport fuel facility in the Danish capital by 2023. Similarly, renewable fuel developer Velocys is striving to bring the UK's first commercial-scale waste-to-jet fuel plant online in 2025 in North East Lincolnshire. Velocys’ planning application, backed by businesses including British Airways and Shell, was recently approved.

Green hydrogen in Great Britain

As for the Isle of Wight project, plans for the island to play host to a solar-powered hydrogen generation plant, which would supply energy for the maritime and transport sectors, have this week been unveiled by the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) and consultancy giant Ricardo.

The organisations will examine the island’s existing solar infrastructure to assess the scale of hydrogen production which would be possible, as well as the commercial impacts of a new facility. If the assessments run smoothly, EMEC and Ricardo will seek additional partners to develop and manage the facility, which they believe should be community-led.

EMEC has notably led green hydrogen demonstrator projects in Orkney, in a bid to decarbonise sectors which are regarded as both hard-to-abate and as “lifelines” to the island community, including ferry travel and heating. Following the success of these pilots, its plans for the Isle of Wight have received the backing of the island’s council and of Wight Community Energy.

The news from the Isle of Wight comes shortly after Shell unveiled plans to develop a wind-powered hydrogen facility in the Netherlands. The energy major claims that the project will be Europe’s largest green hydrogen facility once complete.

International action

Recent analysis from Bloomberg NEF concluded that the large-scale, global deployment of renewable hydrogen across the energy, transport and industrial sectors could reduce their annual emissions by up to 34% by 2050 - at a "manageable cost".

However, for these benefits to be created, storage and pipeline infrastructure will need to expand at a pace – three or fourfold by mid-century. Moreover, to discourage nations and businesses from investing in non-renewable methods of hydrogen, carbon prices would need to be increased significantly from the current global average of £24 per tonne, and government subsidies for fossil fuels drastically reduced.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) committed late last year to accelerate financing for hydrogen solutions across the EU. The move complements the EU’s €100bn Green Deal, which targets a just transition to a carbon-neutral bloc by 2050, and the EIB’s own commitment to stop financing fossil fuel projects in 2021.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, who has repeatedly stated that he views hydrogen as a key component of the green deal, is now facing mounting calls to action from the Hydrogen Council - a coalition of 80+ leaders from across the business, finance and climate spheres are now calling on the European Commission – to embed hydrogen in the bloc’s Covid-19 recovery plans. Member state Germany’s stimulus package notably includes a €7bn pot.

In the UK specifically, RenewableUK, expects green hydrogen to “grow exponentially” in the near future, in line with the nation’s 2050 net-zero target. The government awarded 20 projects a share of £7 million to explore innovative ways of making and using low-carbon hydrogen last August, then built on this with a £90m pot for decarbonising heavy industry using hydrogen earlier this year. Separately, the UK’s first pilot project injecting zero-carbon hydrogen into an existing gas network recently began at Keele University.

But hydrogen was notably absent from Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s first budget and has not been reported for inclusion in the UK’s full recovery plans, due to be announced in the latter half of June. Additionally, work on the development of a low-carbon heat strategy and low-carbon HGV strategy, as recommended by the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) , had not begun pre-pandemic. Now, this activity is likely to face further delays, in spite of the CCC’s recommended 2021 deadline.

While hydrogen is not regarded as a “silver bullet” solution and any major increase in production will need to be coupled with careful policy and infrastructure changes to maximise its positive environmental, social and economic benefits, the current context is one whereby all governments and businesses are having to make major changes. As such, experts including David Hart and Thierry Philipponat believe there is now a moment to be seized for a hydrogen revolution.

Sarah George



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