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Energy transition: how do we decarbonise energy generation and industry to meet net zero?

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The energy industry is coming under intense scrutiny as climate change moves to the top of the headlines. Despite emissions from the electricity generation falling by 50% on 1990 levels, with commitments to meet net zero emissions by 2050, all eyes are on the energy industry to meet these goals.


Meeting these targets, while also making sure there is enough energy to power the economy is a key challenge for industry, policymakers and industry. There isn’t a silver bullet, and all must work together to come up with a solution. What we do know is that to reach net zero will require a mix of new technologies. 


The development of cleaner technologies in power generation particularly have led the way in the work already done to decarbonise the energy sector. It’s hard to believe for instance that just over a decade ago we didn’t have an offshore wind sector in the UK. We need to replicate this with new technologies to meet the new targets.


There are two key areas currently being discussed – Carbon Capture Use and Storage and Hydrogen. Both Hydrogen and CCUS have a range of potential applications in decarbonising heat, transport and industry.  They are key pillars of government strategy with support for CCUS including funding of up to £170 million for heavy industry ‘net-zero carbon’ clusters by 2040 and a £20 million Hydrogen Supply programme to name a few initiatives.


For CCUS, the UK offers a particularly favourable environment through the existing oil and gas sector’s skills and the existing infrastructure. CCUS is also believed to be one of the most cost-effective ways of decarbonising industrial processes. In addition, CCUS could also be used as an enabling technology for low carbon hydrogen production.


Across the UK there are already trails ongoing which have hydrogen blended with the natural gas supply to decarbonise heat. Hydrogen can also be used in the transport sector. As we showed at Goodwood in summer 2019, hydrogen, produced by wind power can also be used an electricity generation source. And, with today’s announcement from Government that the end of the sale of petrol and diesel cars will be brought forward to 2035 (from 2040) and that it will now include hybrid cars, it is clear that we need to use all the tools available to make cleaner electricity if we’re going to be able to charge them.


Using hydrogen as an energy storage means and coupling it with wind power, is a viable way to store excess renewable electricity generation between seasons. National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios report in July 2019 said that some form of hydrogen storage would be needed in each of their four scenarios.


In the same report, the Siemens Green Ammonia demonstrator was also mentioned. The system uses a wind-powered electrolyser to produce hydrogen, followed by the synthesis of ammonia using the Haber-Bosch process. The ammonia is then stored for conversion back to electricity when required. The report says: “Ammonia offers a number of options. It can be burned to make electricity when renewable output is low, or turned back into hydrogen for different end uses.”


For both technologies the UK’s infrastructure would need to be upgraded before broader operation can be achieved. As has been shown with offshore wind, collaboration between public and private sectors will be vital to lowering costs and creating a market which can meet the grand challenge of our time.