These two quotes can’t both be right, can they? Who is right? Who do we believe?
Not surprisingly, HyNet, a major North West industrial project to produce blue hydrogen, has polarised opinion amongst environmental campaigners and those working to decarbonise our cities and businesses. In an attempt to increase understanding and bridge differences between the pro- and anti- HyNet camps, the Chester Sustainability Forum and Chris Matheson MP brought together experts from industry and academia, together with local politicians, to debate HyNet and blue hydrogen, and the opportunities and challenges for West Cheshire in becoming the centre of a new hydrogen-based economy.
The Storyhouse Garett Theatre was packed, the scene was set, as the first speaker, Professor Joe Howe of Chester University, gave an introduction to the Mersey “local industrial cluster”. The University is the ‘academic lead’ on North West decarbonisation, Joe is chair of the North West Hydrogen Alliance, and so he made an impassioned speech on the benefits HyNet would deliver to our region.
The case for the opposition was then set out by the second speaker, Green Party Councillor Paul Bowers. Paul highlighted the massive level of subsidies the fossil fuel industry receives, over $5 trillion annually. The blue hydrogen HyNet will produce requires 20% more gas to produce the same amount of usable energy, and the four plants currently operating only capture at best 41% of the carbon they emit. The price for blue hydrogen is intrinsically linked to world gas market prices. His conclusion: HyNet = (heavily subsidised) business as usual for the fossil fuel industry.
The third speaker was Dr Diarmaid Clery, from Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre, who explained the terminology and processes of industrial carbon capture and storage (CCS). As currently applied to the exhaust emissions from a power station, CCS can remove 90% of the CO₂ at the cost of a 20% reduction in power output – so more fuel will be consumed to meet a given final power output. He also introduced the ‘carbon budget’ concept – the limit on carbon emissions needed to achieve the Paris Climate Treaty target of limiting the average global temperature rise to 1.5°C by 2050. By now, to be on track, carbon emissions should be falling, but they are still rising.
For me, the most compelling speaker of the evening was David Cebon, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Cambridge University and Director of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight. He focused on hydrogen for home heating, and presented relevant figures to consider when thinking about hydrogen as a fuel or heat source. Starting with 100 kWh of electricity from renewable sources, he contrasted the difference in energy output from hydrogen boilers, simple electric space heaters and heat pumps, showing that heat pumps generate six times as much heat per kWh than hydrogen boilers. And that’s for green hydrogen!
Source: Professor David Cebon
Converting UK domestic heating from natural gas to “blue hydrogen” would increase total gas consumption by 27%, leading to a 50% increase in gas imports. So whilst Professor Cebon was clear that there is no case for hydrogen in home heating, he pointed out that hydrogen may make sense as a fuel in some specific processes, such as glass making, fertiliser production and steel production.
John Egan was next up. John is North West Regional Lead at Progressive Energy, the company that is project managing the HyNet development. He said that the climate emergency demanded urgent action. At present, our local industrial cluster contributes about one fifth of the total carbon emissions from the entire North West total of industrial, domestic, travel, agriculture, etc. He sees HyNet / ‘Blue hydrogen’ as one of a number of solutions to reducing total emissions, none of which are perfect – many technologies will play their part. He mentioned that renewables currently supply only around 2% of the UK’s total energy needs, and, in global terms, the UK is doing relatively well in developing renewables.
As we neared the end of the evening, Don Naylor, one of the coordinators for Liverpool Friends of the Earth, took to the stage. He drew attention to the appalling records of many fossil fuel companies operating in the global south, particularly in Mozambique: indigenous land grabs, wholesale human rights abuses, environmental destruction, corruption, etc. Don advocated that corporate social and environmental due diligence should be carried out on companies and partners involved in HyNet.
Finally, Chris Matheson, MP for Chester, drew out a number of salient points from the various presentations. Critically, 5% of the UK’s total energy usage is concentrated on a 13-mile stretch of the Manchester Ship Canal between Eastham Locks in Ellesmere Port and Weston Point in Runcorn. Chris perceives an urgent need to act, otherwise these industries will ultimately have to be closed down to meet the legally-binding 2050 ‘net zero’ target. He is willing to see if HyNet works, and hopes it will create new opportunities for our region.
Did this debate change anyone’s opinion of HyNet and blue hydrogen? Somehow, I doubt it, though I hope that there’s now more understanding and respect for each side’s position.
HyNet means “business as usual” for our continued reliance on fossil fuels. If the CCS aspect works at the 97% efficiency John Egan predicts (without presenting any supporting evidence), then I admit it will significantly reduce carbon emissions at the price of increased fuel use, meaning that we continue to invest in a fossil fuel industry that we really need to be closing down.
Many, myself included, would argue that more carbon emissions could be saved by investment in insulating buildings and installing heat pumps, proven technologies. This would create many more jobs, but is politically very much harder to do, as it involves persuading millions of individuals to incur expense and accept disruption at home and at work. If, as a country, we are to meet our ‘net zero by 2050’ target, then we will inevitably need these measures to be taken further down the line, a legacy for future leaders and generations to tackle.
If you want to watch the HyNet Storyhouse debate, it is available for viewing on YouTube:
Part 1 (1 hr 54 mins) – https://youtu.be/_7ehNxuiGck
Part 2 (13 mins) – https://youtu.be/eGnMWJBxTPw