Hydrogen could power UK through winter as manufacturers back clean energy source

Wind and solar-generated electricity in summer could keep Britain warm in colder months

Britain's Prince Charles, Prince of Wales visits Riversimple, a company developing hydrogen-powered cars in  Llandrindod Wells in Wales. AFP
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Britain could store enough power in underground reservoirs during summers to prevent winter energy supply crunches, a report has found.

Using spare electricity generated by wind and solar farms during summer to create hydrogen would ensure the UK could meet increased power demands during winter months, a report from the Energy Networks Association said.

The report, in which the trade body said there was enough space in old oil and gas fields to store the hydrogen that households and businesses need in colder months, comes as manufacturers backed the clean energy source as a decarbonisation solution for the transport sector.

“The country’s wind and solar farms will have enough spare electricity generated in spring and summer, when demand is lower, to produce green hydrogen to the equivalent capacity of 25 nuclear plants," ENA said.

“The hydrogen stored would provide the same amount of energy needed for every person in the UK to charge a Tesla Model S electric vehicle more than 21 times in the autumn and winter months when energy demand is highest, creating a clean energy buffer that avoids having to manage limited energy supplies on the international markets."

Jo Bamford, executive chairman of Ryze Hydrogen and Wrightbus, which delivered the world’s first double-decker hydrogen bus in Aberdeen, Scotland last year, said the energy source was the best way to decarbonise the transport sector.

“Hydrogen is something we should really be looking at because we have lots of wind and lots of water,” he told delegates at a seminar hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies.

Last year, his Northern Irish company Wrightbus delivered the first of 15 hydrogen buses, part of an £8.3 million (£11.3m) project between the company and Aberdeen, home to some of the world’s top oil companies, a plan under which one of the largest fleets of hydrogen buses will be run.

Mr Bamford, son of JC Bamford Excavators' chairman Anthony Bamford, said a switch to hydrogen offered Britain, offering a “wonderful opportunity” to manufacturers.

People are obsessed with batteries as the only solution.
Jo Bamford, Ryze Hydrogen and Wrightbus

The company founder said it worried him that “people are obsessed with batteries as the only solution” for powering transport in the future.

“It also slightly worries me that we need to ban the internal combustion engine.

“We make 100,000 combustion engines a year and we can run them on hydrogen and they could be zero emission."

He said that “batteries are not the only solution” to help clear the two main hurdles of the government’s net-zero ambitions – changing people’s behaviour when it comes to transport and ensuring infrastructure is in place to accommodate the shift.

Creating hydrogen in summer could reduce the number of turbines needed in the UK over the next 30 years by 75 per cent, the ENA report said.

Between 60 and 80 gigawatt hours of hydrogen could be produced by wind and solar farms in warmer months, the report found – the equivalent of about 25 nuclear power plants.

While the UK as a whole has been accused of failing to recognise the value of hydrogen, Wales is considered a leader in adopting the energy source as part of a zero-carbon future.

There are only 11 hydrogen filling stations in England, UK H2 Mobility says, so the recent inauguration of a new, 350-bar, Fuel Cell Systems filling station in Milford Haven, Wales, about 250 miles from London, attracted attention.

The station uses renewable energy to electrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen and then compresses it to make it usable in some cars.

The local council will use the site to test fuel-cell cars such as the two-seat Rasa, which is being developed at Riversimple’s factory in Llandrindod Wells, Powys, in Wales.

Simon Hart, the Secretary of State for Wales and MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, said there was growing awareness that "if we want to hit our targets we need to hit every energy source”.

He highlighted that the potential for offshore wind energy in the Celtic Sea would require some buffering and hydrogen could be an answer.

John Armitt, head of the National Infrastructure Board, said last year that if Britain did not have a clear hydrogen strategy in place “zero carbon is not going to happen”.

“The hydrogen question is critical and we are constantly urging government to step up the pace, provide more leadership,” he said.

Mr Bamford used Germany as an example of a nation investing heavily in hydrogen after its government in May pledged to invest $10 billion to fund large-scale hydrogen projects, “whereas the UK is going to spend £240m trying to embed this in our economy”, he said.

One of the biggest challenges facing the renewable sector is how to store surplus electricity produced when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining that is not needed at that point.

At the scale needed to supply a whole country, batteries are considered impractical, so engineers have considered other ways to use wind-generated electricity that is not needed to generate power later.

Hydrogen is one solution, as it is possible to separate its molecules from oxygen in water but the process uses a lot of electricity.

Producers can use excess electricity to make hydrogen during off-peak hours, or even off-peak months, and then burn it when demand is higher, a process considered 'clean' as it produces water vapour.

However, critics fear green hydrogen, which is clean to produce and burn, might lose out to hydrogen made from natural gas, which is clean to burn but emits carbon when produced.

Chris Train, green gas champion at the Energy Networks Association, said the ENA report showed how green hydrogen could provide "a clean energy bumper that can protect us from fluctuations on the international energy markets, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – whatever the weather, come rain or sunshine".

Updated: October 12, 2021, 11:58 AM