Raising the UK’s climate ambitions for 2035 will put net zero within reach and change the UK for the better
Great Britain’s electricity system is on track to be powered free of fossil fuels
and at 100% zero carbon in just four years’ time according to a new National Grid Electricity
System Operator (ESO) report. This is a key enabler for a zero carbon electricity system by
2035, in line with the 6th Carbon Budget.
Data released ahead of the COP26 climate summit in November, along with recent
electricity records, illustrates the growth in renewable electricity generation and
progress towards periods of zero carbon operation of the GB electricity system, an ambition
the ESO first announced in April 2019.
At present its control room needs to draw on conventional power plants (typically gas) to
deliver system reliability and manage properties such as voltage and frequency. By 2025 it
will have transformed its operation of the electricity system, so that when there is enough
zero carbon generation available, it can deliver electricity to Great Britain without using any
Since 2016 Britain’s electricity has been over two-thirds zero carbon for 5,000 half hour
periods, over 100 days cumulatively. In 2019 zero carbon sources outstripped fossil fuelled
electricity generation for the first time ever and 1.30pm on 17th August of that year saw the
highest share of zero carbon power ever seen at 85.1% (wind 39%, solar 25%, nuclear 20%
and hydro 1%). Wednesday 12 February 2020 saw the highest ever output from zero carbon
generators– 28.8GW – enough to power 10m homes for a week.
This latest update on progress towards zero carbon forms part of a new National Grid ESO
report ahead of the COP26 climate summit on November which showcases how Great
Britain’s electricity system has decarbonized in recent times, charting the key industry and
policy developments that have made it possible.
Fintan Slye, National Grid ESO Executive Director said:
“We’re confident that by 2025 we will have periods of 100% zero carbon electricity,
with no fossil fuels used to generate power in Great Britain. As with coal free
operation of the grid these may be short periods at first but will still be a significant
milestone on the road to net zero, and these periods will quickly extend.
“The growth in renewable sources of power, with record levels of wind and solar,
means there will be enough zero carbon generation to meet demand. A
key challenge is ensuring the electricity system is ready to accommodate that power.
Our engineers are deploying innovative, world first approaches to transform how the
power system operates, such as removing the need to draw on
fossil fuel based generation for critical stabilizing properties.“There’s still plenty of hard work ahead but it’s an exciting time and getting to this
position has been a huge team effort from everyone across the entire energy
“We look forward to the opportunity that COP26 brings and sharing GB’s progress
towards zero carbon with countries around the world. Electricity systems are at the
forefront of the energy transition and have the potential to be a catalyst to accelerate
decarbonisation on a global basis. Now is the time to come together, share learnings
and bring about lasting change.”
Energy Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said:
“The UK is leading the world in cleaning up our energy system and we continue to
break new records in wind and solar power, while coal has all but been eliminated
from the grid.
“Today’s report shows that the industry and the public’s hard work to drive up
renewables is paying off and we are on the cusp of achieving periods of 100% zero
carbon electricity generation with no fossil fuels used.
“There’s still some way to go, which is why we are powering forward with our
ambitious commitments to increase renewable power across the UK and invest in
new, green technologies so that we build back greener from the pandemic and tackle
May 23rd 2020 presents an example of how the ESO must transform the operation of the
power system ready for zero carbon.
On the day, the electricity market provided a near-100% zero carbon solution –
but the ESO’s control room had to intervene to ensure system stability, pulling back some
wind and hydro and replacing it with synchronous plant like gas and biomass which provided
sufficient inertia. That reduced the zero carbon proportion of the generation mix to around
83% over the day.
Its Stability Pathfinder project is finding new ways to source inertia, through synchronous
compensators, hydroelectric power stations or repurposed gas turbines, which means that
by 2025, if the market again presents 100% zero carbon power, it will no longer need to
reduce zero carbon generation.
More recent electricity records and statistics include:
• At 1pm on Easter Monday 5th April 21 the carbon intensity of electricity – the
measure of CO2 emissions per unit of electricity consumed – dropped to 39 gCO2,
the greenest Great Britain’s electricity grid has ever been.
• Coal generated only 1.6% of electricity in 2020, compared with almost 25% five years
• Spring 2020 saw Britain’s longest run since the industrial revolution generating
electricity without using coal, stretching almost 68 days (1,630 hours) between April
10 and June 16.• The record for the highest ever level of wind generation and proportion of the mix
was broken on 21st May 21 (17.7GW and 62.1%)
• At 1pm on Easter Monday 5th April 21 the carbon intensity of electricity – the
measure of CO2 emissions per unit of electricity consumed – dropped to 39 gCO2,
the greenest Great Britain’s electricity grid has ever been.
• Early afternoon on Sunday 11 June 2017 was the first time zero carbon power
contributed over 75% to Britain’s electricity mix.
• The same month – June 2017 – saw zero carbon power outstrip fossil fuel generation
across a month for the first time ever.
About National Grid ESO
National Grid Electricity System Operator – a legally separate business within the
National Grid Group – operates the electricity transmission system in Great Britain,
balancing supply and demand for electricity 24/7.
It does not own or operate any electricity generation or transmission but it’s engineers
and National Electricity Control Centre play a central role in managing electricity, liaising
with generators and regional distribution networks operators. Central to this is managing
key properties of electricity such as frequency and voltage ensuring a safe, secure and
reliable supply across Great Britain.
More on the ESO’s Zero Carbon ambition
In 2019 the ESO initiated a series of ‘pathfinder’ projects to identify and trial solutions to
procuring new services to provide frequency response, voltage, stability, restoration of
power and thermal constraints. This approach encouraged the market to come forward
with solutions – to bring in new sources of capital spend, new players into markets, and
new technologies. This contrasts with the typical approach in the rest of the world
whereby a monopolistic transmission owner identifies its preferred solution and builds it
For example, under the stability pathfinder, Drax has been contracted to provide inertia
through its Cruachan hydroelectric pumped storage plant located in a hollowed-out
mountain in Scotland, Welsh Power is installing a synchronous condenser and flywheel
at its site at Rassau in Ebbw Vale. Statkraft is developing two “Greener Grid Parks” in
Liverpool and Keith, Scotland. These new or modified assets will draw energy from the
grid to power their turbines and create inertia – rather than inertia being a by-product of
producing electricity. So, the same generators can continue providing inertia for the
system, but with dramatically reduced need to burn fossil fuels. It also means that wind
and solar power can stay online, rather than being paid to switch off, saving consumers
more than £100 million over the six-year duration of the contracts.
The ESO’s wider access programme has removed barriers to entry for a wider range of
technologies to access Great Britain’s balancing mechanism (BM) market. The BM isone of the main tools the ESO uses to balance supply and demand on the electricity
system in real-time, alongside balancing services like frequency response and reserve.
Through the BM, providers can offer to increase or decrease their generation or demand
to help balance the system.
‘Wider access’ enables the ESO to accept offers and bids from smaller providers, a
change that will improve system flexibility, allow more renewable power to contribute to
balancing the grid, and bring better value to consumers.
Late in 2020 the ESO also launched Dynamic Containment, the first in a suite of new
fast-acting frequency services to be introduced by the ESO to maintain the system close
to 50Hz – the frequency Britain’s grid must be kept at by balancing electricity supply and
demand second by second.
It’s designed to act rapidly when triggered by a fault on the system – for example the loss
of a generator – with providers, typically battery storage, injecting power into the grid to
catch and ‘contain’ the resulting deviation in frequency
Powersystems reviews Green Hydrogen as a renewable energy technology and some of the challenges the sector faces as we wait for the Hydrogen Strategy publication from the UK Government this year.
Hydrogen is the lightest element of the periodic table and the most common substance in the world. It can be used as feedstock, fuel or energy carrier and does not emit CO2 when burnt, that is why you often hear about its high potential for decarbonising the economy.
Now, as nations come forward with net-zero strategies to align with their international climate targets, hydrogen has once again risen up the agenda for the UK and Australia through to Germany and Japan.
Potentially hydrogen could soon power trucks, planes and ships. It could heat homes, balance electricity grids and help heavy industry to make everything from steel to cement.
But doing all these things with hydrogen would require staggering quantities of the fuel, which is only as clean as the methods used to produce it. Moreover, for every potentially transformative application of hydrogen, there are unique challenges that must be overcome.
In order to meet the 2050 decarbonisation policies and targets, the UK requires deployment of new technologies in traditional roles. One of these is the innovative technology around the uses of Green Hydrogen.
- Powersystems update on The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has launched what it describes as the world’s first ever detailed route map for a fully decarbonised nation
- The Sixth Carbon Budget(2033-2037) charts the decisive move to zero carbon for the UK
What is Hydrogen?
Hydrogen is an explosive and clean-burning gas. Since the weight of hydrogen is less than air, it rises in the atmosphere and is therefore rarely found in its pure form, (H2).
In a flame of pure hydrogen gas, burning in air, the hydrogen (H2) reacts with oxygen (O2) to form water (H2O) and releases energy.
The energy released enables hydrogen to act as a fuel. This energy can be used with relatively high efficiency.
Hydrogen can be made by splitting water with electricity (electrolysis) or by splitting fossil fuels or biomass with heat or steam, using “reforming” or “pyrolysis”. Any CO2 can be captured and stored.
Hydrogen can be stored, liquified and transported via pipelines, trucks or ships. And it can be used to make fertiliser, fuel vehicles, heat homes, generate electricity or drive heavy industry.
Hydrogen is usually considered an energy carrier, like electricity, as it must be produced from a primary energy source.
In a hydrogen economy, hydrogen would be used in place of fossil fuels, which currently provide four-fifths of the world’s energy supply and emit the bulk of global greenhouse gas emissions. This could aid climate goals because hydrogen only emits water when burned and can be made without releasing CO2.
What is blue hydrogen?
Blue hydrogen is when natural gas is split into hydrogen and CO2 either by Steam Methane Reforming (SMR) or Auto Thermal Reforming (ATR), but the CO2 is captured and then stored. As the greenhouse gasses are captured, this mitigates the environmental impacts on the planet. Simply put, hydrogen is considered blue when the emissions generated from the steam process are captured and stored underground via industrial carbon capture and storage (CSS).
What is brown/black hydrogen?
Brown hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels and currently accounts for around 95 per cent of global production. The oldest way of producing hydrogen is by transforming coal into gas. This gasification process converts fossil-based materials into carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen. Gasification is achieved at incredible high temperatures without combustion, with a controlled amount of oxygen and/or steam. The carbon monoxide then reacts with water to form carbon dioxide and more hydrogen via a water-gas shift reaction.
Generated via coal gasification syngas and hydrogen can be separated from the other elements using absorbers. It is the result of a highly polluting process since both CO2 and carbon monoxide cannot be reused and are released in the atmosphere.
What is Pink hydrogen?
Hydrogen obtained from electrolysis through nuclear energy is coloured pink.
Hydrogen from Biomass
Hydrogen can also be produced from Biomass via gasification. Depending on the type of biomass but also on the use of carbon capture and storage technologies net carbon emissions can be lower using these technologies
What is green hydrogen?
Green hydrogen is produced using electricity generated from renewables such as solar energy, biomass, electricity (e.g., in the form of solar PV or via wind turbines), instead of fossil fuels. And currently accounts for 1% of overall hydrogen production.
Green hydrogen has the potential to provide clean power for manufacturing, transportation, and more — and its only by-product is water. With green hydrogen, zero carbon emissions are produced. It is in essence the gold standard of hydrogen in the clean energy sector.
Why is green hydrogen a big deal?
Green hydrogen is one of several potential low-carbon fuels that could take the place of today’s fossil hydrocarbons. Admittedly, hydrogen is far from ideal as a fuel. Its low density makes it hard to store and move around. And its flammability can be a problem.
However, the case for hydrogen is clear; the UK requires a zero-emission fuel that is well understood, has extensive regulations and standards in place, is readily scalable and which can be used across multiple energy vectors. Hydrogen is that fuel. In the next decade alone, research by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU) indicates that hydrogen could reduce CO2 emissions by 1.7 million to 6.3 million tonnes by 2030, supporting the further deployment of 1,800 MW to 9 GW of wind and 830 MW to 4 GW of solar.
There are major technical and economic hurdles to meeting the UK’s Net Zero goals without hydrogen, particularly for heating and transport applications
The country’s gas grid supplies 3x more energy than the electricity grid today, and the transport sector accounted for over 1/3rd of final energy consumption in 2019. While there is significant renewable power generation potential in the UK, notably from offshore wind, electrifying all heating and transport is likely to be an unsurmountable challenge by 2050. Mass electrification would require and overhaul of the current energy system, and massive scale up of batteries, improved transmission systems and smart metering. Alternatively, hydrogen can be integrated into current energy distribution and end-use systems, and utilize high renewables potential in the UK by converting green electrons into green molecules, that can be widely transported and stored seasonally. Mechanisms to store significant volumes of energy are important for coping with extreme environmental events.
Hydrogen is already widely used by industry, so technical problems to storage and transport are not insurmountable. The opportunity for green hydrogen to be applied across a wide range of sectors means there is a large number of companies looking at harnessing and benefiting from a hydrogen fuel economy. The most significant of these are the oil and gas firms (who are increasingly facing the calls to cut back on fossil fuel production). Big oil’s interest in green hydrogen could be critical in getting the fuel through to commercial viability. Cutting the cost of green hydrogen production will require massive investment and massive scale, something the oil majors are uniquely positioned to provide.
Green hydrogen projects and pathways
Hydrogen offers a pathway to revitalise manufacturing capabilities in the UK and improve the skill base for workers. The UK was a leader in discovering hydrogen and creating fuel cells, and today has several world leading manufacturers and supply chain businesses that with the right support could become global leaders and engines of economic growth for the UK economy. Using hydrogen, the UK could also become a global Centre of Excellence for hydrogen mobility and transport across land, maritime and aviation sectors.
- A recent report published by Powersystems highlights that hydrogen produced with renewable electricity could compete on costs with fossil fuel alternatives by 2030
- UK regions are taking steps to capture the scale of the hydrogen opportunity. Scotland has pro-actively driven hydrogen investment and support for regional initiatives, including the BIG HIT project in the Orkneys, this multi-partner plan involves the Port of Cromarty Firth together with SHFCA members ScottishPower (ScottishPower has created a new business division dedicated to delivering green hydrogen) and Pale Blue Dot, as well as other partners including Scotch whisky producers Glenmorangie, Whyte and Mackay and Diageo. This new green hydrogen hub in the Highlands will see Scotland leading the way for the integration and deployment of hydrogen technology and decarbonisation of local industry.
- Britain’s largest “green” hydrogen production facility is to be built on the outskirts of Glasgow under plans unveiled by ScottishPower. The energy group has submitted a planning application for a 20 megawatt electrolyser next to the UK’s largest onshore wind farm at Whitelee. The electrolyser will use surplus renewable electricity from the wind farm as well as power from a proposed new 40 megawatt solar farm and a 50 megawatt battery storage project to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.
- ScottishPower, through its recently launched Green Hydrogen Business, has signed an agreement with Global Energy Group at their Port of Nigg site to work together to identify processes and plant that could be powered by green hydrogen.
- The H100 Fife project is designed to be a real life test of the use of hydrogen for heating homes. The idea is to build a facility in Levenmouth, Fife, that will use offshore wind power to generate hydrogen from electrolysers.
- In Wales, the government has recently launched a consultation on developing the hydrogen energy sector in Wales
- Across the country, local businesses in East Anglia are partnering with LEPs and local councils to assess opportunities to leverage the region’s rich offshore wind experience to accelerate the hydrogen transition.
- Announced in February and March 2021, The National Grid currently has two UK Projects underway; FutureGrid, which is trialling hydrogen mixes in off-grid pipelines and Project Union, which is exploring the development of a UK hydrogen ‘backbone’ joining together industrial clusters around the country.
- Equinor and SSE Thermal have unveiled plans to develop a 100% hydrogen-fuelled power station in the UK’s Humber region – and it’s believed to be a world first.
- Powersystems recently reported on the global race to produce hydrogen offshore. Wind generation reached its highest ever level, at 17.2GW on 18 December 2020, while wind power achieved its biggest share of UK electricity production, at 60% on 26 August 2020. Yet occasionally the huge offshore wind farms pump out far more electricity than the UK needs. What if you could use wind energy to make hydrogen?
Is the UK late to the green hydrogen party?
Given that on the 8 July 2020, the road map was unveiled by the European Union to promote green hydrogen “as a key priority to achieve the European Green deal and Europe’s clean energy transition.” It is seen as a technology which can bridge the gap between electricity production from renewable energy and the goal of decarbonising a large share of the EU’s energy.
Similar policy developments are underway in the likes of Australia, Canada, Japan, Netherlands, Germany, France, Portugal and the US – the pressure is on ministers to ensure that the UK makes early preparations to become a competitive exporter in the sector.
Presently we can only look at promises made as part of the Ten Point plan for a green industrial revolution announced in November 2020. The UK Government expects that driving the growth of low carbonhydrogen could deliver over GBP 4 billion of private investment in the period up to 2030. The UK Hydrogen strategy was due in March 2021
- The Nuclear Industry Council (NIC) and Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) published a roadmap outlining how the UK could co-locate electrolysis at 12-13GW of nuclear reactors. This commitment could enable the production of 75 TWh of green hydrogen by 2050, the bodies claim
- The UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, has also published a roadmap this month, detailing a potential trajectory for the sector through to 2050. The roadmap has been backed by business giants including Rolls Royce and ITM Power and explores how the UK could target 80GW of green hydrogen capacity by 2050.
- Powersystems recently shared on what we need to know about hydrogen on climate change and decarbonisation in the UK ahead of COP26 In November 2021
What about hydrogen vehicles?
Alongside oil and gas firms, renewable developers see green hydrogen as an emerging market, with offshore wind leader Ørsted last month trumpeting the first major project to exclusively target the transport sector in Denmark. The eye-catching Toyota Mirai helped fuel early hopes that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles might vie with electric cars to take over from the internal combustion engine. But as the EV market has boomed, the prospect of hydrogen being a serious contender has faded from view, at least in the passenger vehicle segment.There are roughly 18,000 hydrogen fuel-cell cars in the world today and 31,000 forklifts, compared to more than 373,600 plug-in electrics up to December 2020.That said, pundits still expect hydrogen to play a role in decarbonizing some vehicle segments, with forklifts and heavy-duty trucks among the most likely to benefit.
- Powersystems looks at the most ambitious shake-up in the bus sector in a generation. The 5-year new funding investment aims to deliver 4,000 new British-built electric/hydrogen buses to provide clean, quiet, zero-emission travel
- The NHS outlined plans to trial hydrogen-powered ambulances in London later this year. The organisation is sourcing retrofitted hydrogen combustion technology from ULEMCo and pairing it with battery technology from Promech Technologies
- Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) updated its business strategy to fully electrify Jaguar models by 2025, with another ambition to begin testing hydrogen fuel cell electric prototypes in the UK this year
- Toyota, Daimler and BMW are leading a group of 13 companies across the world, investing $10 billion over the next decade in developing hydrogen technology and infrastructure. Government investment also has a role to play
- Bath Area Trams Association (BATA) has announced that it is in detailed discussions with American transportation system manufacturer TIG/m and consultants TenBroeke Engineering for a wire-free hydrogen tram project
- Powersystems reports on Hydrogen or electric vehicles? Why the answer is probably both – The distinct virtues of the two main emerging types of greener transport mean both are likely to flourish, depending on the requirements of different types of user
- In Northern Ireland, the first three hydrogen fuel cell double decker busses entered service on Northern Ireland a further 142 buses to come.
- In the North East – Teeside, which produces most of the UK’s current hydrogen, a hydrogen transport Centre of Excellence is being set up and funded by the government, with local leaders having even wider hydrogen economy aspirations
- The Government has announced £30m of investment in EV and hydrogen technology to help launch studies into the creation of a UK lithium supply chain, improvements in battery safety and the re-use of car batteries. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) revealed the plans, which include a project to extract lithium from hard rock in Cornwall as well as studies into hydrogen storage and the development of solid-state batteries.
Leading sector for UK job creation
Green hydrogen has the potential to become a leading sector in the UK for job creation and exports.
The UK is currently a global leader in the manufacture and design of hydrogen electrolysis systems, with decades of expertise in hydrogen storage, transportation, and combustion technologies. These include the world’s first PEM electrolysis Gigafactory built by ITM Power, membrane free electrolysers developed by CPH2, and high resiliency electrolysers built for the UK & French nuclear fleets by TP Group.
Other emerging technologies Include Solid Oxide Electrolysers currently under development by CERES Power and HiiROC’s plasma process technology.
74,000 jobs could be created from a commitment to hydrogen by the government and supported by appropriate measures
Supporting these highly specialised businesses and other innovative technology companies require highly skilled workers creating thousands of well-paid manufacturing jobs across the UK will provide a competitive advantage towards an emerging global market demand.
Longer-term private sector vision
These new projects may seem small in comparison to the UK’s broader transport, industrial and heat sectors. But it is clear that there is strong private sector support for longer-term, overarching initiatives that deliver an ongoing transition beyond initial pilots.
- The Green Hydrogen Catapult, for example, has convened seven big businesses under a shared mission to increase the world’s green hydrogen production fifty-fold by 2026 – in a move they claim will halve costs
- Business members of the Catapult include Iberdrola, Ørsted, ACWA Power, CWP Renewables, Envision, Yara, and Snam
- Away from the private sector, non-profit the Rocky Mountain Institute will provide support alongside the UN’s pre-COP26 ‘Race to Zero’
£320 billion could be generated by the Hydrogen industry for the UK economy
- Similarly, trade bodies including WindEurope and SolarPowerEurope received backing from Bill-Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy last year to form the Renewable Hydrogen Coalition
- And, while the Catapult is global and the Coalition covers all of Europe, the UK does play host to its own Hydrogen Taskforce, which includes the likes of Shell and BP
The Hydrogen Taskforce is a coalition of the hydrogen industry’s largest organisations that operate in and innovate across this sector. Its aim is to secure the role of hydrogen in the future energy mix.
The Hydrogen Taskforce is committed to working with Government to secure tangible support to aid the creation of infrastructure and delivery frameworks, helping the government to deliver on its promises to level up the regions and its Net Zero by 2050 commitments.
The Hydrogen Taskforce aims to enable the UK to become a world leader in the international application and service of hydrogen, to deliver excellence throughout the supply chain and create a globally attractive export.
All in all, it would seem that all of the ingredients are ready for the UK to begin dramatically decarbonising and scaling up its hydrogen sector. Over the coming weeks, all eyes will be on BEIS, pushing it to bring the Hydrogen Strategy to the table and understand the actions we now need to take as part of the Rollout plan for a UK hydrogen economy.
Powersystems asks the question where are we now with renewable energy, climate change and policy?