Powering a new energy system from offshore wind and hydrogen?
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Robin Watson
Chief Executive at Wood

The pace of change in technologies that will transform our current energy systems is both exciting and compelling. In the same week as Earth Day and President Biden’s climate summit, I joined a discussion with the Scottish Renewables Offshore Wind Conference on hydrogen’s role and the challenges we face, but more importantly the opportunities that this will bring.

There is no mistaking the growing need to address the way we all live and work, and the impact that has on our planet. At Wood, we recognise an unstoppable momentum in achieving the transition and we see it as our role to unlock solutions to some of the critical challenges the world faces. One of these being the energy transition.

There is – quite rightly - unstoppable momentum to reduce carbon emissions and this is a challenge that is technically solvable. Energy security and transition is about the supply, distribution and consumption of energy which are causing the issues of today, and they are inextricably linked. We should be cautious and intolerant of ‘shifting’ our carbon footprint; getting others to make and sell high carbon products for us to consume. There is a bridge to provide secure and climate-friendly energy solutions which can be used to supplement wind, tidal and solar power to provide the necessary levels of available, usable energy at the point of demand.

Purposeful investment

This requires considered purposeful investment that matches societal needs with industrial ingenuity, science, and technology, and both public and private sector interests. It needs a new way of thinking for industry. It needs a purpose-led business strategy. It needs purposeful and deliberate policy choices.

Whilst energy transition is a broad subject, from primary sources of energy, right through to energy distribution, and consumption; the role of hydrogen is an area that is increasingly being seen as one of the solutions to decarbonisation. When talking about hydrogen, we need to look at the bigger picture, and think about the development of hydrogen in social and economic terms and not just as it relates to energy use and the environment.

Hydrogen, working as part of an integrated energy mix, has the potential to meet these ambitions including driving social change and strengthening economies, through more sustainable housing, heating, and transport. It may also be more efficient and therefore enable more competitive industries employing skilled workers. Additionally, it could potentially bridge the divide between our fragile rural economies and our urban ones.

If it’s done purposefully, the legacy of any investment today can and should be felt by many future generations.

A clear market opportunity

Hydrogen is a clear market opportunity for many companies in the energy industry. The environmental impact and efficiency of hydrogen depends on how it is produced. Electricity or heat can power the process, but if the source of power is fossil fuel then the environmental benefits will only be realised if emissions are captured and stored. This will require continuing development of reforming and carbon capture technologies as well as exploring reforming of bio-derived feedstocks and the integration of renewables.

The hydrogen sector is primed for exceptional growth but scaling-up is not without challenge. It will take considered and purposeful investment that is conscious of the opportunity, but also the means to achieve it.

There is a growing consensus that hydrogen has an important role to play in a net-zero future, the trick now is how to accelerate that journey. For me, this includes creating the right level of collaboration amongst the key players in the industry, ensuring policy and public sector investment is focused in the right way, on the projects that will have an impact, and creating an attractive proposition for private sector investors as IOCs transition to IECs.

It’s ensuring that, in industry, we have the right ‘ask’ of government and a key role in the debate around a just transition. We have a role to play in moving that debate forward. The destination is absolutely a lower-carbon energy mix but one that continues to provide secure and safe access to affordable energy and jobs for the many skilled workers across our broad energy industry.

Scotland’s significant offshore experience and ingenuity means we are in a prime position to drive that through marrying offshore wind investment with scalable hydrogen production technology. Hydrogen produced using offshore wind could be the fuel of the future.

As a world leader in offshore wind, the UK is already driving innovation in fixed turbines, emerging technology in floating wind, as well as the supporting infrastructure, transmission and distribution networks, and turbine assembly needs. Early efforts have helped reduce the cost of offshore wind development and further innovation will drive down costs faster and create more jobs.

In floating wind, many of the competencies are a stronger match for the existing conventional energy supply chain, than the existing wind supply chain. Coupled with the decline in oil demand due to the pandemic and the resultant volatility in commodity markets, we are seeing resources, specialist skills and technical expertise become available.

As the power grid becomes more loaded, it’s clear that the production of hydrogen through wind-powered electrolysis will become increasingly important. Alongside offshore wind power generation, a British green hydrogen sector could be a major contributor to the economy and our net-zero targets.

Collaborating towards an integrated energy future

Nothing can happen in isolation and requires the power of collaboration and investing with purpose. The scale of the opportunity for the UK is vast, given our abundance of low-cost wind energy which could generate green hydrogen cost-effectively, and/or our potential in carbon capture and storage solutions.

However, we will only realise the potential if we collaborate across sectors, breaking down barriers to progress, sharing expertise and resources, and creating a culture of innovation and ambition. For me, what we need to be talking about today is purposeful investment and testing the very definition of investing with intent.

Hydrogen is not just a chemical element – it is not only an important part of our journey towards net-zero, but also an enabler of enduring social and economic progress. In Scotland and the UK, we have all the ingredients of success – wind, waves, expertise, and experience.

The conditions are right for an integrated and blended energy future. It’s how we are viewing the development at Wood and is one of the reasons we are so excited about the opportunities of the energy transition - socially, environmentally, and economically.

Collaboration and investing with greater purpose will determine how quickly, and how well we succeed. The choices we make today, if they are the right ones – can have a profound impact on the world we hand over to future generations.

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