Solving the UK’s hydrogen infrastructure problem

3 min read

A lack of investment in infrastructure and innovation to support the use of hydrogen energy and hydrogen-based fuels must not become a roadblock to the net zero energy future, says Andrew Thompson, partner and cleantech sector specialist at Withers & Rogers. 

While prioritising wider use of clean energy, policy makers and investors will have an important role to play in ensuring there is sufficient energy system flexibility to meet demand in the future.

Ahead of the UK’s hosting of the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November, the International Energy Agency (IEA), has published a report setting out a comprehensive roadmap,  guiding the transition to a net zero energy system by 2050. Specifically, the report explains how hydrogen power and hydrogen-based fuels will be required to ‘fill the gaps’ where more conventional renewables can’t easily or economically replace fossil fuels and where sustainable bioenergy supplies can’t cope with demand. For example, the report describes how hydrogen will be needed to power energy-intensive industries, such as steel and chemicals manufacturing, as well as global freight and logistics.

Based on the IEA’s models, the report states that, in order to get to net zero emissions by 2050, global production of low-carbon hydrogen will need to increase from just nine metric tonnes (Mt) in 2020, to 150Mt in 2030 and 520Mt in 2050. Global production of hydrogen-based fuels must also increase from 87Mt in 2020, to 212Mt in 2030 and 528Mt in 2050. The report also predicts that by 2045, the application of new energy technologies will be widespread and industrial plants around the world will be hydrogen-powered.

COP26 to showcase HydroFLEX hydrogen train

Engineering the hydrogen home

Without an efficient and safe infrastructure system however, it will not be possible to increase the use of hydrogen energy and hydrogen-based fuels. It is clear that significant investment in enabling infrastructure is needed on the path to net zero emissions, particularly when it comes to hydrogen storage and the development of systems capable of moving it safely and efficiently between ports and industrial zones.

Sponsoring innovation activity can take many forms and the world of F1 motor racing could have a key role to play. Formula 1 motorsport boss, Ross Brawn, has recently commented that hydrogen-powered cars could be part of the sport’s future. If this happens, F1 teams could fast forward innovation activity centred around the use of onboard fuel cell technology.

On the heavy industry side, the UK already has several largescale hydrogen production plants and improving the efficiency of the generation process is a primary area of research and innovation. The island of Orkney has its own hydrogen production plant, which was installed by the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in 2016. Through a process of electrolysis, the plant generates hydrogen from excess energy produced by offshore tidal energy converters and the island community’s wind turbines, thereby storing the energy in a highly stable form, with lower losses than more conventional batteries. Transferred to shore in mobile units, the hydrogen is then used to power the island’s harbour and ferry operations. Several further research projects are underway on the island – one is aiming to generate a hydrogen-based fuel to power marine transport and another is seeking to use it to power a 250-mile, net zero emissions flight.

In a recent development, Norwegian oil company, Equinor, has announced plans to build the world’s first full-scale power plant, which is capable of burning pure hydrogen to generate electricity in Hull. The plant will be the first of its kind with carbon capture and storage technology and the energy generated will be used to supply a nearby gas power plant, owned by energy company, SSE.

Some interesting research is underway which could facilitate the wider application of hydrogen energy. For example, Torvex Energy Ltd has recently secured patent protection for an environmentally-friendly method of producing hydrogen gas from salt water. UK hydrogen storage provider, H2GO Power Ltd, has secured patent protection for an innovative high-capacity storage solution for hydrogen gas, specifically for the propulsion of hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Regulation will be needed to help establish common infrastructure

H2GO Power Ltd is also behind a further research initiative, backed by Innovate UK, which is trialling the use of artificial intelligence (AI) software, linked to hydrogen hardware, to make data-driven decisions in real time. The algorithms developed could help to optimise renewable energy integration into the electricity grid. To build the algorithms, the project is drawing on data provided by EMEC’s hydrogen production plant in Orkney, along with other data about weather, electricity prices and grid management.

While these examples of innovation are signs of progress, more support from industry and the government is urgently needed to develop the UK’s hydrogen infrastructure. As well as helping to de-risk wider use of hydrogen energy and hydrogen-based fuels, regulation will be needed to help establish common infrastructure. This in turn could help to establish dominant technologies more quickly and target investment in innovation more effectively. According to the IEA, in 2050, almost half of the required global reduction of CO2 emissions is expected to come from technologies that are currently at demonstration or prototype stage.

Use of intellectual property (IP) protection is vital to protect the commercial interests of innovators and investors. Securing patent protection for innovations in such a fast-developing and fertile marketplace can deliver significant rewards; particularly for those who invent something that is subsequently recognised as ‘standard essential’ in industrial application. For those embarking on R&D collaborations, protecting each party’s respective interests in relation to foreground and background IP is important to minimise the risk of disputes arising further down the line.

In any situation where there is a global push to innovate, it is also possible that some of the dominant players in each subsector of the clean technology market could choose to make their IP freely available to other innovators, with certain conditions, in order to accelerate innovation activity further. While this strategy could become a key driver of innovation in the future, it should be noted that it is only an option for innovators with a business model based on IP ownership.

While progress in solving the hydrogen infrastructure problem is being made, there is still much to do if the global target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 is to be realised. With the right impetus and support for innovation, including advice around IP protection, the transition to a net zero energy system could be smoother than we think.

Andrew Thompson, partner and cleantech sector specialist at Withers & Rogers