Report Back on Meeting Friday October 14th 2022 with
DAVID PARKIN of PROGRESSIVE ENERGY
There are moments when you feel that you’ve been given a glimpse of the future; our October meeting certainly did that. Yet it could not have been more timely, for two weeks earlier a planning application was submitted for miles of pipeline under Cheshire to kickstart the hydrogen economy of the north-west of England, to develop carbon capture and ensure Net Zero becomes a reality.
“The planning app is over 11,000 pages long and yes, we have checked for newts, bats and everything else along the route,” said David Parkin, our speaker, one of the founder members of HyNet North West, a consortium of local enterprises. Its members include glass maker Pilkington, cement manufacturers such as our previous speaker Breedon, refineries and chemical works, as well as effectively the whole of the Liverpool Bay area and Cheshire salt mines.
HyNet is a commercial engineering project on a scale with HS2 yet has had virtually no public airing. When it’s done, you won’t see much, as pipelines will be underground. David did not put a price tag on it, but we’re talking billions, mostly private money. Other schemes are planned for Scotland and around the north-east. “Britain and Norway are world leaders on this,” David said, because we’ve both had huge natural gas industries which leave big holes underground, plus a determination to switch from one gas to something cleaner, and we have somewhere to put the waste product. HyNet is one solution, and how.
Back to the beginning. Energy is a heady mixture of the environment, politics and engineering – David spends much of his time talking to civil servants, he said! In 2019 legislation obliged the UK to get to Net Zero carbon by 2050. That’s the law, not an aspiration, and for processes which generate a great deal of CO2, such as cement works, it is a phenomenal headache. Meanwhile the public is on board, for example expecting car makers to reduce their carbon footprint; that’s not merely under the bonnet, but mundane components such as windows. Hence the involvement of Pilkington. “It will be the biggest transformation of the UK economy for 200 years,” said David – since steam and coal started to replace horsepower.
Several problems need solutions at the same time. Right now, virtually all our flexibility of supply comes from fossil fuels. Average usage of energy is less than it once was as industry has become much more efficient, and much heavy industry has left the UK. Here we are talking energy security. But add to that, how do we manage peaks, such as during the 2018 ‘Beast from the East’ storm when only one day’s supply of gas remained? Or even a “normal” hard winter? Then we’re talking resilience and reliability (an issue for wind and solar). And in turn that means storage, big time, which we in the UK don’t have.
There’s also a broad public misunderstanding of where our energy comes from. Ask most people and they’d talk about electricity. In fact gas provides by far the bulk of the power used in Britain, as homes and businesses use it for heating, and in recent times it’s the mainstay of electricity generation too. “If we wanted to convert all gas-fired power stations to clean energy, we’d need 70 new nuclear stations,” David pointed out. That’s not going to happen, even though Small Modular Reactors will play a part in this future.
Natural gas is mostly methane, and that’s a potent greenhouse gas itself. Burn it, and you get carbon dioxide. Replacing it with hydrogen, which burns to produce only water vapour, is an obvious starter; hydrogen can be compressed into a liquid and easily transported by ship or tanker, or under pressure in pipelines. It works great in transport. It’s safe and clean.
But – it will need to be stored: so HyNet plans to use the Cheshire salt mines, huge underground caverns. The salt is mined by water extraction, and then the caverns can be filled with H2.
It will need to be generated: the cheapest way is actually from natural gas – that’s about half the price of doing it by electrolysing water (£39/MWh compared to £89/MWh). The elephant in that room is that this “blue hydrogen” creates yet more CO2.
Hence an immense additional need for carbon capture. The plan is to fill up the old gas extraction strata – “we can just punch a hole through the ocean bed,” said David, making it sound easy. The aim is to capture 800,000 tons of CO2 a year (bearing in mind we do none at the moment, and our power stations alone emit over 50 million tons annually). Firstly under the North Sea in Liverpool Bay. Once that’s full, which will take decades, eventually under Morecambe Bay once gas has been extracted from there. “The calculations suggest that’d serve for about 100 years,” said David.
Generation, storage, and safe disposal of an unwanted waste product are the essence of HyNet; 500 people are working on this with a range of industrial partners, including ENI the Italian oil company. The Stanlow Essar refinery at Ellesmere Port (it used to belong to Shell and is on the Manchester Ship Canal, so Peel are involved too) which currently supplies 60% of UK liquid fuels, is building a blue hydrogen plant, enough to supply 2 million homes; according to their website, “the UK’s first low carbon hydrogen hub will initially produce 3 terawatt-hours (TWh) of low carbon hydrogen each year from 2025. This will be quickly followed by a facility twice this size giving a total capacity of over 9TWh of hydrogen per annum.” That’s going to cost £750 millions. The hydrogen fuel can then be used for buses or trains or planes or heating or industry.. other work is ongoing to develop exactly how.
To get it to our homes, there will be a lot of road works. Brace yourselves! Pilot studies such as at Keele University have shown that we could replace up to 20% by volume of natural gas by hydrogen with no need to convert domestic systems – but that 20% provides only 7% of the energy due to the lighter gas’s lower calorific value. So that is not the answer. We will have to take a deep breath, find deep pockets, and over the decades to come, create a whole new vast infrastructure network.
Many of the questions from members referred to alternatives such as tidal power or ground force heat pumps, but some of these are pipe dreams or technically difficult or simply too expensive. HyNet has correctly figured out that huge change is unavoidable, and perhaps we should embrace it, not least for the boost it can give to significant industries on our doorstep.
As well, perhaps, to help avoid too many examples of the ferocious storms, drought and floods, the dangers to dams and reservoirs, which we have begun to realise are all connected. As individuals we can do our bit adopting solar panels and electric cars, and many of us are indeed doing that, but for heating and for industry, HyNet has at least some of the answers.