Hydrogen, the fuel of the future, is becoming a reality in Ireland
By Daniel Murray
Sunday Business Post newspaper (20-09-20)
The cleanest way of producing hydrogen is from renewable electricity, and that just happens to be where Ireland has significant potential.
Just a few short years ago, advocating for hydrogen as a large scale clean energy solution was a quick way to ruin your credibility.
“We were hydrogen mavericks seven-eight years ago,” is how Paul McCormack puts it.
As the innovation manager for Belfast Metropolitan College he has been an advocate for the use of the gas and his role now stretches to programme manager for GenComm, the European hydrogen project, where he is involved in installing Ireland’s first renewable hydrogen facility in Antrim.
“With all the work that is going on, we suddenly find ourselves centre stage. Hydrogen is the new word for the green recovery post Covid-19 in Europe,” he adds.
The €4 million Antrim GenComm project is EU-funded and is being constructed by Energia at one of their large wind farms. The plan involves using renewable electricity from wind to split water into its hydrogen and oxygen components. The zero-carbon gas will then be used in three purpose built buses making daily trips in and out of Belfast city.
It is admittedly small scale, but still a sign of hydrogen’s new found credibility. A zero-carbon gas, it can be used in a number of applications, including transport, heavy industry and power generation. The cleanest way of producing hydrogen is from renewable electricity, and that just happens to be where Ireland has significant potential. With offshore wind energy resources that far outstrip domestic electricity needs, the country could become a European hub for the production of “green hydrogen” from excess wind power.
And this is why there are very real hydrogen projects being pursued by resilient mavericks all around the country today. In Dublin the National Transport Authority is running a pilot hydrogen bus trial and Gas Networks Ireland is building an advanced research centre to test the impact of the gas on its grid. Meanwhile in Belfast, Wrighbus is building 3,000 hydrogen buses for use in the UK and also in the Republic.
It might now be on the public radar just yet, but could the advent of hydrogen mark the beginning of a dramatic shift in Ireland’s energy fortunes following years of lacklustre oil and gas exploration and a reliance on imported energy?
Hydrogen's long history
Yes is the short answer. But not so fast. In reality, a substantial hydrogen economy is at least a decade away. Price, the current availability of surplus renewable energy and incompatible domestic appliances are all obstacles to its wide scale deployment.
Crucially, however, these are obstacles that businesses and state bodies are now working to overcome, although some might ask what took them so long?
The delayed acceptance of hydrogen as a respected green energy solution belies its long history. Both the process for generating “renewable hydrogen” by splitting water with electricity, and the first “fuel cell” which combined water and hydrogen to produce electricity, were discovered in the early 1800s. Since the second half of the 20th Century, it has been heavily used in space exploration programmes as a rocket propellant and remains an option for creating additional fuel if local water supplies are discovered on far away planets.
In the last few years, as the reality of the climate crisis finally began to wet the brows of policymakers around the world, renewable hydrogen broke through as a high-potential energy solution for sectors that are difficult to decarbonise – mainly heavy transport and industrial manufacturing.
“Hydrogen is the simplest molecule,” Eoin Syron, a lecturer in chemical and bioprocess engineering at University College Dublin, said.
“One of the reasons people are so interested in it as a fuel is that using it just produces water with no other emissions. It can be burnt, or it can be used in a fuel cell to produce electricity.”
By weight, hydrogen has the highest energy content of most common fuels: about three times that of ordinary petroleum products. By volume, however, it has one of the lowest energy contents, due to the fact that hydrogen molecules like to be far apart, and therefore need more space. This can cause issues with storing and transporting the gas, feeding into its heightened cost.
According to Syron, a key part of developing a strategy for hydrogen will be incentivising its use. As the price of carbon increases, these incentives could make it an increasingly attractive option.
“To incentivise the end use of 100 per cent hydrogen, we need to be clever about where we target,” Syron said. “At the moment, the most attractive place looks like buses, heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and trains. It is a high potential energy source for heavy industry too. In Ireland that is really the food and beverage sector.”
As well as being strategic about where hydrogen should be most efficiently used, there needs to be a plan for how it is sourced. Not all hydrogen is created equal when it comes to climate change. Despite the fact that all end-users produce zero-emissions, production can happen in several ways, some of which results in significant greenhouse gas emissions.
Currently, the cheapest and most common way to produce hydrogen is by putting fossil or “natural” gas under extreme steam heat to induce a chemical separation. This has associated greenhouse gas emissions which if not captured using carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) has implications for global warming.
Where fossil gas is used to create hydrogen and CCS is deployed to capture the carbon, this is known as “blue hydrogen”. When completely clean hydrogen is made from renewable energy it is usually referred to as "green hydrogen", although not everyone likes to use the terms.
“We don’t use the colour system at all, we refer to it as fossil hydrogen and non-fossil hydrogen,” Tara Connolly, a gas expert with Friends of the Earth Europe, said.
“We don’t think carbon capture and storage can deliver at scale or at speed so blue hydrogen in our view doesn’t really exist and isn’t likely to exist at the scale and speed necessary.”
Connolly claimed that at a European level, there has already been an attempt to push blue hydrogen ahead of green hydrogen, and that fossil fuel industry interests were attempting to ensure that fossil gas would play a large role in the European hydrogen economy. If this happened, she said, it would seriously limit the climate benefits of the gas.
“Our concern is that the new European hydrogen strategy didn’t rule out fossil hydrogen. When Frans Timmermans, the Climate Commissioner, was asked about this, he couldn’t give a date for when they would rule it out. This is very strange because the technology to produce green hydrogen or fossil blue hydrogen are very different. The idea of investing so heavily in developing blue hydrogen technology is very strange if the aim is to eventually go for all-renewable,” she said.
In Ireland, developing blue hydrogen could be a way to scale up demand and build out the end-user economy until green hydrogen comes online. However, considering the vast offshore wind resources available to develop the gas, this would make little sense, according to James Carton, head of Hydrogen Ireland and assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Dublin City University (DCU).
“Natural gas is cheap at the moment and turning it into hydrogen is quite cheap also, but it does have a cost because you are investing in a technology that you are ultimately gong to decommission,” he said.
Despite the more expensive nature of making green hydrogen, Carton said that prices were falling rapidly due to increasing economies of scale.
“Four years ago we were involved with a company that was pricing electrolysis technology, and it was in the range of €1.5 million per megawatt (MW). At the moment, there is an order where the price per MW had gone down to about €350,000. That is because of the way things have been scaled up. Ten years ago the scale wasn’t there,” he said
The potential for green hydrogen production in Ireland has certainly caught the attention of a variety of industry players and state bodies.
Simply Blue Energy is a floating offshore wind company with ambitions to construct a floating wind farm in the Celtic sea near the old Kinsale gas field off the coast of Cork. According to Valerie Cummins, operations and project director, once offshore wind can be ramped up, the business would be very interested in producing green hydrogen.
“We are exploring a proposal for funding to facilitate a detailed study of green hydrogen production from offshore wind, with Ervia and other potential stakeholders,” Cummins said.
“This is focused on the concept of a south coast hydrogen valley, which would include a pilot project – an important next step in capacity building. Cork is a very obvious starting point for this process given the number of industries in the county. Also Cork Harbour is a port, so if we are talking about the storage and export of green hydrogen, then collaboration with a port is very important. Next, how we can apply hydrogen in heat and transport is a huge question. We can work with Ervia and the gas plant in Whitegate as end users, and all of the pharmaceutical companies.”
Although Cork may present the most obvious starting point, it is over 400 kilometres north in Antrim where the first renewable hydrogen facility on the island of Ireland is being constructed.
Partly funded by the European GenComm hydrogen project, Energia, the energy supplier, is moving an electrolyser onto one of its wind farms to produce hydrogen from 100 per cent renewable electricity.
“We were forecast to launch in September, but due to Covid-19 it will be the end of this year,” David MacCartney, corporate development manager with Energia Group said.
The pilot project involves an electrolyser, which runs electricity through water to split it into its hydrogen and oxygen elements. Energia will own and operate that piece of equipment and the group has signed a contract with Translink, the Northern Ireland transport body, to supply renewably-sourced hydrogen fuel.
Wrightbus meanwhile has also signed with Translink to supply three new sustainable fuel cell electric double-decker buses, which will be powered by the hydrogen. The pilot project will also deliver the first ever hydrogen refuelling station of its kind in Ireland.
Speaking to the Business Post, Buta Atwal, the chief executive of Wrighbus, said the company would also be providing three hydrogen buses for a Dublin trial due to begin in February next year being overseen by the National Trasport Authority The hydrogen for those buses is likely to be imported, but could potentially come from the Energia site if it is up and running in time.
“The vehicles, the first of their kind in the world, emit only water as they move around cities and take just minutes to refuel," Atwal said.
The deployment of hydrogen in transport is also being pursued by an industry group known as Hydrogen Mobility Ireland. Chaired by Mark Teevan, commercial director of Toyota Ireland, the group is planning to put hydrogen vehicles on Irish roads in the very new future.
“We have published a detailed roadmap for how to deploy hydrogen in transport in Ireland out to 2030,” Teevan said.
“The first deployment project is of limited scale. It would mean having two production sources of green hydrogen, three refueling stations, 30 buses, 50-60 hydrogen cars that would most likely be taxis and 10 vans. That is targeted to be deployed in 2022-2023.”
Elsewhere, in the public sector, Gas Networks Ireland (GNI) is taking the prospect of hydrogen very seriously. In its Vision 2050 report, which spells out a plan to decarbonise the gas grid, GNI envisages hydrogen being integrated into the grid from the 2030s. To prepare for this, it is constructing an enclosed testing piping network at a new research centre in Dublin to assess the effect of different hydrogen blends on its equipment. Testing is expected to commence in 2021.
One of the barriers to introducing hydrogen to the grid is the appliances found in Irish homes. Many are unable to take even small hydrogen blends in natural gas, while more modern appliances can only take blends of up to 23 per cent. When looking at blends above that level, there will have to be an initiative to replace gas home appliances and heating systems with hydrogen ready systems. These are all issues that will be assessed by GNI at its new research centre.
The most recent programme for government highlighted the importance of developing green hydrogen while Ireland’s National Energy & Climate Plan, published in July 2020, also emphasised the key role of the gas could have in Ireland’s transition to a low carbon economy and society.
The new government appears keen to focus hydrogen use on difficult to decarbonise sectors such as transport and industry. The Business Post understands that a hydrogen strategy will be produced in 2021 and that it will be closely linked with the offshore wind strategy. The interlinking of these two initiatives will show that the government is interested in prioritising green hydrogen and utilising Ireland’s extensive offshore resources to produce it.
For McCormack, the sooner more hydrogen projects like the Gencomm one in Antrim can get up off the ground, the better for Ireland's diversified energy future.
"The biggest output from these projects isn’t just the hydrogen, it is knowledge. These are pilots to allow authorities and investors to get information and make decisions in an informed way. If we really want to replace fossil fuels, there will be no one solution."