The National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway) with partners HyEnergy Consultancy and Dublin City University (DCU) have recently published a report, “Hydrogen: Exploring opportunities in the Northern Ireland energy transition”. Hydrogen can play a central role in integrating the electricity, transport and heating sectors, storing, and transmitting large volumes of variable renewables, while also stimulating new innovative industries and economies. According to the report, Northern Ireland is uniquely positioned in the United Kingdom (UK) and Europe to become a leader in hydrogen deployment and technology. REGlobal presents an extract from the report.
Hydrogen is considered to be the emerging energy vector which can unite many of the renewable energy technologies, whilst also offering further decarbonisation opportunities in sectors which remain hard to impact and highly fossil dependent.
Global energy systems are under tremendous pressure to transform their environmental impact and aggressively reduce carbon emissions to achieve goals agreed within the Paris Agreement.
Low carbon electricity from renewable sources offers a viable pathway to meeting the commitments required in the Paris Agreement. However, it is not as simple as installing more renewable energy capacity. Renewable power cannot always keep up with peak demand due to seasonal fluctuations and grid constraints and curtailment causes green energy to be wasted. Compounding the accessibility issue, the decarbonisation of certain sectors, such as industry, transport and heat are problematic due to their reliance on existing infrastructure as well as the cost to move to full electrification being a significant barrier.
Hydrogen is seen by many to be the key to unlocking energy transformation. Renewable energy can be used to produce hydrogen which can act as an energy store or can be used directly in a variety of applications, including those which would be difficult to decarbonise via direct electrification. Hydrogen can be the energy carrier that helps to enable the whole energy transition.
To understand how hydrogen can play a role in Northern Ireland (NI), we must first examine the current energy demands of the Province.
Northern Ireland’s Energy Mix
Today NI is heavily reliant on imported fossil fuels to supply its energy needs. With no indigenous fossil resources, production or refining, fossil imports account for the vast majority of NI’s heat and transport energy requirements. In addition, despite the high rate of growth in renewable electricity generation, imported fossil fuels, in particular coal and natural gas, comprised over half of NI’s electricity feedstock in 2018
Direct use of fossil fuels in heating and transportation made up 80% of NI’s total final consumption of energy. The electricity supplied in Table 1 is generated according to the fuel mix shown below.
Outside the electricity generation sector, coal, manufactured fuels, and natural gas are used for heating purposes. Consumption of petroleum products is approximately evenly split between heating and transport1. Bioenergy and wastes are mostly used for heating purposes. Only a very small amount of the electricity generated is used for heat and transport; this is expected to grow significantly in the coming decades.
Renewable electricity generation in NI, predominantly from wind, has grown significantly in the last decade. In 2013, 19.5% of electricity generation in NI was from renewable sources1, compared to 42.3% in 2018. The rest of the electricity generation mix is predominantly made up of coal and natural gas-fuelled thermal generation, at 14.2% and 42.5%, respectively.
Northern Ireland’s Energy Infrastructure
As part of the single electricity market (SEM), NI shares an electricity grid and market with the Republic of Ireland (ROI). SONI is responsible for the operation of the transmission network in NI, while EirGrid carries out the same function in ROI, although both collaborate closely, specifically through SEM operator.
Despite sharing the SEM with the ROI, there is only one source of interconnection between North and South. The capacity of this connection is limited to 100MW from NI to ROI and 200MW from ROI to NI2. As a result, plans for a second 1500MW North-South interconnector have recently been approved by the NI government3. This will increase transfer capacity between both jurisdictions considerably, facilitating the integration of further RES.
The NI electricity grid is also connected to the Great Britain (GB) grid via the 500-MW high voltage direct current (HVDC) Moyle Interconnector between Ballycronanmore, NI and Auchencrosh, Scotland. This connection will only grow in importance, as both Scotland and NI increase their renewable energy source (RES) capacity. Two additional interconnectors are planned for Ireland. The Celtic Interconnector will link ROI and France. The connection is expected to be 575km long, running from Cork to northeast Brittany and capable of carrying 700MW of power. Planning on where to build the onshore facilities is underway and the connector will ’go live’ in 2026 if given the go ahead soon. The 500-MW Greenlink Interconnector will link ROI and Wales. Planning application in ROI were to get underway in Q4 2020.
Renewables in Northern Ireland
NI’s proportion of electricity generation from renewables was 42.3% in 2018, the majority from onshore wind. As of 2018, the total installed capacity of wind farms in NI stood at 1,393 MW, much of which is in the west and north-west, where the wind resource is greatest. In 2019, 84.5% of renewable electricity generation was from onshore wind, with the remainder coming from landfill gas, biomass, biogas, and solar photovoltaic panels (PV).
The growth in renewable penetration of the electricity grid in NI is expected to continue, although the government is yet to announce its future renewable energy targets. The ROI and Scotland have committed to 70% and 100% renewable electricity systems, respectively, by 20302. Given its participation in the SEM and its abundant renewable potential both on and offshore, NI is likely to set similar targets. Speaking at the NI Energy Forum in September 2020, Economy Minister Diane Dodds spoke of her belief that the goal for NI should be no less than 70% renewable electricity by 2030
Assuming this goal, it would most likely be achieved by utilising onshore wind, accompanied with significant growth in solar. NI did not take part in the Crown Estate’s Round 4 leasing process, which is responsible for allocating seabed area of the UK9. The Department for Energy (DfE) believe it is unlikely there will be any considerable offshore wind capacity operational in NI by 2030. However, large quantities of offshore wind capacity in the ROI by 2030 are forecast, with a government aim for 5 GW by the end of the decade10, and, with announcements made by the UK government in recent weeks, it would be expected that offshore wind capacity in NI will also increase more rapidly than previously expected. Floating offshore wind platforms may also be an option in certain geographical locations given recent developments in their technology. This wind generation, predominantly located on the east and south coasts, will be indirectly available to NI should the second North-South interconnector be successfully completed in time. The result would be a closely integrated and flexible all-island electricity system, which would facilitate the growth of renewable electricity both sides of the border by 2024.
A growing issue with variable renewable electricity sources, such as wind, is the waste of energy due to ‘dispatch down’, of which there are two types. Curtailment is when renewable energy production exceeds the electricity system’s demand, and therefore some renewable generators are disconnected to prevent overloading. Constraint is when electricity generation is turned off due to a local network issue. Despite SONI’s success in increasing the level of renewable electricity generation on the grid, 17.4%, nearly 300,000 MWh, of NI’s wind generation failed to reach consumers due to dispatch down in the first half of 202011. This is the highest figure for any region in the SEM.
The need to tackle rising levels of dispatch down is important in ensuring the continued cost-effective growth of renewable energy in NI. A variety of solutions are needed, including increased interconnection, development of the transmission grid, and demand side management. Energy storage, including that provided by hydrogen, can also play a key role in minimising the wasted energy resulting from dispatch down.
While the renewable share of the electricity sector has grown rapidly in recent years, transport and heat remain heavily reliant on imported fossil fuels. Electrification of some heat and transport through increased deployment of heat pumps and electric vehicles is expected to take off this decade. However, harder to decarbonise sectors such as large space heating, industry, heavy goods vehicles, shipping, and aviation will need an alternative low carbon solution12. Low or zero carbon hydrogen has the potential to reduce/eliminate point of use emissions from such sectors.
Therefore, hydrogen enables the interlinking of the electrical and gas infrastructures, provides energy storage opportunities, and increases renewables access to hard to decarbonise markets, thereby increasing renewable penetration of the total energy market for the Province.
Potential for Hydrogen Production in Northern Ireland
Fossil-based, traditional hydrogen production methods can become climate neutral with the addition of carbon capture and storage technology. These so called ‘blue’ hydrogen solutions are not readily available in NI due its lack of fossil fuel resources. However, with high levels of renewable electricity and dispatch down, NI is a fertile ground for ‘green’ hydrogen production. With large amounts of renewable electricity currently going to waste in NI, a situation which is expected to worsen in the future, this energy could instead be used to create hydrogen fuel. Green hydrogen is produced when renewable electricity is used to run an electrolyser. This fuel can be used in transport – hydrogen cars, vans, buses, trucks, ships and even aircraft – as well as for both domestic and industrial heat.
When coupled with biomass or carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS), hydrogen can be used as a feedstock to create synthetic fuels. For example, hydrogen can be added to an anaerobic digester to increase the methane yield and thus the energy content of the biogas. Costs for these fuels are currently prohibitive. However, given the long-term potential of hydrogen for such applications, they are important to consider when making equally long-term investment plans for both CCUS and hydrogen infrastructure.
In comparison to the other regions of the UK and the ROI, there are several reasons that make NI very suitable for green hydrogen production. With relatively high levels of renewable electricity and dispatch down, NI has potential for both grid-connected and on-site hydrogen production at wind farms. Many of NI’s large wind farms may be suitable for on-site electrolysis like the GenComm project at Long Mountain, while grid-connected electrolysers would have access to a highly decarbonised electricity system through the SEM. Such electrolysers could also provide ancillary services to the electricity grid in return for a fee from SONI, providing an additional source of revenue. Whilst Scotland shares many similarities with NI, other regions of the UK have fewer variable renewables and better electrical connection between regions.
There are a wide variety of potential production scenarios for hydrogen in NI. As outlined, the larger wind farms in NI could produce hydrogen on-site, providing an extra market for their energy and help reduce their own dispatch down. Another possible permutation is to situate larger production sites in areas of high wind such as the Fermanagh-Omagh or Derry-Strabane regions. Such production would be connected to the electrical grid and could help to alleviate dispatch down grid issues in addition to producing hydrogen for use locally in heat and transport. A large-scale centralised production system situated near Islandmagee and Belfast is a very real prospect for NI due to its:
- Access to large amounts of electricity due to location near high voltage electricity grid and interconnection with Scotland
- Proximity to large potential demand, including:
- The natural gas grid via the SNIP
- Ballylumford and Kilroot power stations
- Buses and heavy goods vehicles in Belfast and the M1 corridor
- Potential for large scale hydrogen storage at Islandmagee and potential future salt caverns at Larne
- Suitability of Belfast port for export of renewable hydrogen and its derivatives
Northern Ireland needs a hydrogen strategy
The unique geographical and political characteristics of NI suggests that green hydrogen could have an important role to play in the region’s decarbonisation plans. NI has the potential to exploit its unique position by using the abundance of naturally available resources, primarily in onshore and offshore wind and solar to advance hydrogen technologies in the region. The geographic advantage does not end there. The province’s small, islanded geographic area make it ideal for deploying and testing initial hydrogen centric technology solutions.
Policy to exploit this position could be derived both from the UK or Ireland’s positioning but irrespective, the release of clear policy, quickly, will be key to creating the landscape needed for deployment of hydrogen if the potential supply security that it offers to NI’s energy transition and economy is to be realised. Indeed, if such policy is progressed rapidly, it will facilitate the positioning of NI as a hydrogen leading region. This can be used to attract best-in-sector UK and international companies to develop projects and for wider deployment of technology. Such activity invariably draws in further sector investment and will elevate NI’s position on the global hydrogen stage. It will also enable NI to share in the funding likely to accompany the UK’s release of its hydrogen strategy, which is being developed by the Hydrogen Advisory Council and BEIS and due to be released in Q1 2021.
The use of NI as a testing ground for various renewable electricity and hydrogen production technologies, will allow the Province to build on, and increase, its skilled workforce. Production capacity will increase whilst, at the same time, positioning NI as a key location in which to test the viability of locally built technology, using local expertise, land, and knowhow. When projects experience notable levels of success, expansion or replication of the technology would add value to NI’s economy through outsourcing of the country’s unique expertise and delivery from the supply chain which has grown to support the testing phase.
To facilitate and support the policy an inclusive NI hydrogen ‘roadmapping’ activity should be enabled and supported. This should be rapidly developed, locally coordinated by agnostic parties familiar with NI hydrogen and engage all relevant stakeholders.
Hydrogen fits with national climate goals
Across Europe and globally, we have seen increasing awareness of the environment as a key political topic. Hydrogen has entered the public consciousness as a key mechanism for delivering part of a sustainable energy transition. Influenced by this, and the need to drive a post Covid-19 recovery, countries have begun publishing hydrogen strategies outlining their commitment to using hydrogen as a tool in their future national energy strategies. Whilst the UK and Ireland have not yet announced their hydrogen visions, the UK’s will be published in the spring, politicians and industry are engaging to define a future pathway.
The entire energy community agrees that developing a hydrogen economy is key to producing energy systems and value chains which will lead to a complete energy system reduction in carbon emissions. Countries signed up to the Paris Agreement are beginning to translate that commitment into nearer term local carbon targets and strategies for delivery. The UK, as one of the 195 signatories, has agreed to play its part towards achieving global net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. The UK government has already committed to a legally binding target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 within the 2008 Climate Change Act, this was amended in 2019 to set a 100% reduction target, or net zero, of 1990 levels by 2050. 5 yearly carbon reduction budgets are being set, currently the 2030 target requires a 57% reduction. Transport has been singled out in the UK and ROI as a key environmental policy. Both countries have announced legislation bringing forward banning sales of diesel and petrol vehicles by 2030 – 10 years sooner than originally expected. Pressure groups are pushing for public transport vehicles to be at the forefront of this change, with UK groups wanting wholesale operational bus fleet change by 2025, which will be extremely challenging, and trains to follow soon afterwards.
Local fuel poverty solution?
Whilst the ways in which most of the UK interacts with its energy supply is established and reliable, the more isolated areas, including the more remote reaches of NI, do not have the same experience. Hydrogen offers a solution for these remote locations by providing a way to produce and harness local renewable energy sources without the need to rely on more expensive imports. This is of particular importance to rural and coastal areas of the country which frequently rely on heavily polluting, expensive fuels such as heating oil. Whilst this may not be an important consideration or target for central UK government, it could be a unique angle for NI to pioneer; especially with the potential of higher numbers of people experiencing the effects of fuel poverty made more pronounced due to Covid-19 restrictions mandating extended home working periods and more insecure income streams.
Furthermore, this may help to bring down costs for NI residents whom, from 2016-2019, experienced the highest weekly household expenditure on energy of any UK region; some 14.7% higher than the UK average for the period.
Northern Ireland – hydrogen exporter
The UK has also largely decided against positioning itself as a green hydrogen exporter. This is due to the potential for green hydrogen use domestically within its industrial base. It has not, however, discounted the idea of transporting hydrogen internally from region to region within the UK. At the same time, due to its naturally occurring onshore and offshore wind resources, the potential for hydrogen exports should be of strong interest to NI. Hydrogen offers a mechanism to capture otherwise wasted renewable energy, either where it is stranded (not grid connected) or through curtailment (where the grid cannot take the generated power). By ‘oversizing’ production capacity, NI has the potential to use the generated hydrogen not only within its own borders but also as a mechanism to grow the economy through exporting and job creation. Such aspirations will also drive inward investment in the Province. Hydrogen is unlikely to be exported in its gaseous form, therefore, additional plant will be required to enable such distribution. This can also play a role in other key Irish markets such as agriculture if the carrier molecule chosen is ammonia. By positioning NI as an exporter of hydrogen, it can also aid another of the governments’ key targets ‘Fostering National Technologies’.
In the energy transition, countries are re-assessing the infrastructure they have available and whether it is appropriate for the new sustainable world. One key aspect is hydrogen use in energy storage. Hydrogen storage costs are associated with the volumes needing to be stored. For the largest volumes, geological salt caverns provide the most cost-effective, secure storage mechanism. Currently, such caverns are predominantly used for NG storage. The Islandmagee facility available near Larne in NI can be used to facilitate the migration away from NG towards hydrogen and the eventual operational support of an all-island hydrogen grid. This facility can also be used as a hub for hydrogen for mobility applications. This dual use suggests that any future hydrogen plan should be centred on maximising the exploitation of this resource. Connection via gas grid interconnectors will act in a similar way to how they do today for NG, as the UK system has a network of NG storage caverns – which will also likely be migrated to hydrogen over time. This is the only such facility on the island of Ireland and therefore it should be an area of focus for any future hydrogen implementation plans.
Now or never
Currently the UK has focussed its CO2 mitigation measures on industrial clusters – aiming potentially at the lowest hanging fruit whilst maximising the impact per £ invested. This has led to the development of a range of green and blue hydrogen initiatives which are partly focussed on supplying feedstock hydrogen within the clusters but are also looking to spill additional product into the surrounding areas primarily for the hydrogen energy applications examined in this report. In addition, some of these clusters have wider
ambitions where they perceive their excess hydrogen product could be supplied to other areas of the UK where this early-stage production and local hydrogen development has not occurred. Key targets are the south east, south west and NI. Therefore, it must be inferred that NI risks being left behind at this key development moment for future infrastructure. The province needs to build a hydrogen vision which can result in a robust request to government for support to develop a value chain with hydrogen produced and used in the region.
The full report can be accessed by clicking here