NEWS & INSIGHT | article
Accelerating Scotland’s Hydrogen Revolution
This story was originally published in The Herald.
With innovative projects such as the Hydrogen Backbone Link, the Net Zero Technology Centre is aiming to develop new infrastructure for a future green hydrogen revolution – placing Scotland at the forefront of this exciting form of clean energy production.
Over the last few decades, Scotland has played to its strengths in oil and gas. It has developed a huge industry, created hundreds of thousands of jobs and generated billions of pounds for the economy.
As the world transitions away from fossil fuels, however, the decline of this sector is inevitable. Yet Scotland need not lose out as a result. With effort and determination, it could become a leader in the production of hydrogen, which is set to become the carbon-free fuel of the future.
Green hydrogen, which is produced entirely from renewable electricity, is the ultimate prize. Scotland has sufficient power generated from offshore wind to build capacity to create this, and the country can leverage the expertise it has built up in oil and gas to open up opportunities in this new energy market.
Martyn Tulloch is Head of Energy System Integration at the Aberdeen-based Net Zero Technology Centre, which aims to develop the infrastructure needed to push forward low carbon energy. He sees real potential for Scotland in this new market.
“There are two things you need to have in order to produce green hydrogen”, he explains. “These are low cost renewables and low cost hydrogen production equipment.
“We have some of the lowest cost offshore wind potential anywhere in the world and certainly in northwest Europe. Of course, a lot of other countries are looking at this too, including those with the ability to create hydrogen from solar power, so we will face competition.”
The market will be a tough one, but Scotland has been building its expertise in this area for some years, largely in small projects such as using hydrogen to power post vans in the Isle of Lewis.
Hydrogen has huge potential alongside electricity in the energy mix of the future, Mr Tulloch explains. “We need to electrify everything we can, such as cars, trucks, potentially domestic heating, and some industrial processes.
“But there are other areas like heavy transport, ships and steel and cement making where this will be impossible. Manufacturing is the largest global carbon contributor. This is where hydrogen can come in.”
The industry is, however, still in its early stages, with a lot of work still to do. “It’s not cost effective at the moment – the big challenge is to scale the hydrogen production technology.
“The largest electrolyser available to do this at present is in the 1 to 10 megawatt range – we need to move that up to gigawatts. That will bring economies of scale in manufacturing and drive down costs, as we have seen in offshore wind. Alongside this, technological innovation will be essential and that is an area we at the Net Zero Technology Centre are focusing heavily on
It is likely to take a decade or so to achieve this commercial critical mass, though Scotland is off to a good start, with demonstrator activity already taking place. “We already have a number of strong examples around the coast, including in the Cromarty Firth, where a consortium including ScottishPower is producing hydrogen for the whisky industry.”
Mr Tulloch believes that there are major opportunities for exporting Scottish produced hydrogen, though this will require a full commercial framework to be put in place. “That’s under development at the moment. There is still a challenge, so we want to raise our aspirations without having our expectations set too high.”
He sees a carbon tax or carbon reduction targets as important enablers to drive the industry forward. “These don’t really exist at the moment. To get to a position where we have a level playing field, we do need to look at this in terms of CO2 emissions.
“However, I’ve every confidence that this will develop – indeed, it has to do so if we are going to meet the Paris Agreement targets.”
Mr Tulloch sees plenty of opportunity for hydrogen here in Scotland as well as in markets overseas. As the Cromarty Firth project is providing, whisky is a sector for which it could well be ideal.
“The industry provides a great example. It is heavily dependent on heat and currently has a high carbon footprint, but there are some strong companies here that probably see the marketing benefits of selling a zero carbon product.”
The Scottish Government has recognised the importance of a hydrogen economy and the opportunities it offers. It is working with the Net Zero Technology Centre to fund strategic projects, including the Hydrogen Backbone Link, which will place the country in a leading role in developing a link / connection to European infrastructure.
It raises the possibility of an international pipeline network to which Scotland would be linked. This may sound fanciful, but Martyn Tulloch believes it would offer real benefits.
“It’s actually much more cost effective to transport natural gas over long distances than it is to do the same with electricity. We currently have a pipeline across the English Channel as well as an electricity interconnector.
“They are roughly the same length and cost, but while the electricity cable can convey one gigawatt of power, the pipe can carry 10 gigawatts of gas. So there is a huge advantage there.”
He acknowledges that there may be safety concerns about transporting a flammable material like hydrogen, but points out that we have huge experience in dealing with oil and gas, which can also be volatile and potentially explosive.
“The safety aspects are going to be absolutely at the forefront and we have to make sure that we get that right from the start. The vast experience we have in dealing with hydrocarbons is one of the strengths that Scotland has and positions us well to succeed in the new hydrogen economy.”
While the industry may take time to establish itself, he believes that it has a strong and prosperous future. “Within a decade, I’d like to have a lot of demonstration projects producing hydrogen for local use across Scotland.
“More importantly, I’d also hope to see the first large scale projects starting to export, with the foundations of a hydrogen network beginning to be put in place.
“One of the things we are looking at is repurposing as much as we can of the existing oil and gas network alongside the new pipelines we will also need. It’s a hugely exciting area to be working in.”
The Scottish Government sees major economic opportunities in building a strong hydrogen sector across the country as well as exporting our output to Europe.
Its strategy document published last December envisages the country becoming a leading nation in production of this as a low carbon fuel, providing a supply that is reliable, competitive and sustainable.
Ministers want to make hydrogen a key element of Scotland’s overall decarbonisation plans. It has calculated that by building a strong export market, we could create a sector generating more than 300,000 jobs and a £25 billion annual gross contribution to the country’s gross value added (GVA).
The Scottish Government’s initial ambition is to generate five gigawatts of renewable and low-carbonhydrogen by 2030. Our infrastructure, natural resources and skilled workforce could allow us to become the producer of the lowest cost hydrogen in Europe by 2045.
An important part of this plan may be the Hydrogen Backbone Link. This project, in which the Net Zero Technology Centre is also involved, is a highly ambitious venture, repurposing and optimising the existing pipeline infrastructure. It also aims to develop complementary options such as transport by ship.
The network would link to a European hydrogen backbone. As well as finding a use for existing oil and gas pipeline infrastructure and avoiding both the economic and environmental costs of decommissioning this, it is estimated that it could support up to 800 Scottish jobs.
In developing a strong and growing hydrogen sector, Scotland will be pushing at an open door: the EU has a strategic objective of producing up to a million tonnes of green hydrogen by 2024 and 10 million tonnes by 2030. These ambitious targets suggest there will be an eager market for our exports.
Martyn Tulloch is certainly an optimist. “If we are to decarbonise the global economy, then we need hydrogen as part of that. To me, it really needs to be the new oil and gas.”
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