If like me you have been wondering recently where hydrogen has been all your life, given that it now seems to be a staple of business and energy conversations, then I’d like to reassure you that you are not alone.
That’s not to say that we didn’t know of its existence, as anyone who remembers a periodic table can attest, and I can even say I had heard of hydrogen fuel cell technology, but only as a conceptual, far-off possibility, maybe like the promise of jetpacks.
No surprise then to find that my lack of knowledge knows no bounds – the fuel cell concept dates from 1838 and was an integral part of NASA’s space programmes since the mid-1960s – but 2021 feels like it’s been a catch-up year, with a constant stream of hydrogen-centred concepts to get our heads around. For me, that comes with a growing confidence that this represents a real and significant opportunity for Scotland’s ambitions for climate action and bringing with that significant high-value engineering activity that makes it much too important to miss.
Why hydrogen, why now? Simply because we have an urgent climate emergency that demands actions whose targets would make even the most stretched goal-setter wince, and we need technologies that can be applied now to make changes that will rapidly reverse the emissions which cause those impacts. We know how to manufacture it from electrolysis, we know how to use it in fuel cells and combustion systems, and as a gas it can be portable where needed or supplied via gas pipework systems that are tried, tested, and well known to us.
Why Scotland? Well, we have a number of attributes that fits with the development of a hydrogen economy, the first being a strong existing base of renewable energy, combined with potential for much more. Hydrogen manufactured using electricity from these sources is “green hydrogen” and can be produced when those generators have capacity that the grid doesn’t need. Examples that underline this reality and ambition include the UK’s largest hydrogen electrolyser planned and led by ScottishPower at Whitelee windfarm, which happens to be the UK’s largest onshore windfarm.
Next, we have legacy skills and infrastructure from our oil and gas industry that can be retained and reused to maximise delivery without having to build everything from scratch, a saving not only in cost but, perhaps more pertinently, time. With a workforce already proficient in the safe and efficient design, build and operation of high-pressure gas systems, reskilling can ensure these roles are transferable, and this combined with physical installations that can be maintained and repurposed alongside offshore renewable generation makes a good match. Parallel to this, Project Acorn based in Aberdeenshire is an example that aims to transform natural gas arriving at the St Fergus gas terminal into “blue hydrogen”, returning the carbon containing residual through offshore carbon capture and storage. Capacity can be scaled up given that 35 per cent of the natural gas used in the UK comes onshore at St Fergus.
The combination of these factors sits alongside a favourable policy position from the Scottish Government, creating a positive attitude towards the opportunity that hydrogen brings, with measurable benefits. Through our activities in the Rail Cluster Builder for Scotland, we were glad to be introduced to the team at Arcola Energy, a leading specialist in hydrogen and fuel cell technologies who are currently delivering the Scottish Hydrogen Train Demonstrator project. They are also partnering with Fife-based Farid Hillend Engineering for the delivery of 19 hydrogen-fuelled refuse collection vehicles for Glasgow and have a contract for 12 hydrogen buses for Dundee. In March this year they announced that they would become one of the first tenants of the Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc in Dundee, making this their main manufacturing and engineering base with a planned 135 jobs over the course of three years. Good companies like Arcola always have choices of where to base operations like these, and the fact that they chose to base this operation in Scotland only adds to my optimism for the hydrogen opportunity.
But we are Scottish, so we should pause and search for the inevitable cloud in the silver lining, the game theory that will show us where it will all go wrong? In that respect there is nothing unique to Scotland in the potential to fall behind the pack: if we are timid, lack ambition and most importantly fail to build meaningful scale as we progress then others will overtake, as volume brings rapid economies of scale, and especially competitiveness. Demonstrators have their uses, but we need to take their learnings quickly and spring ahead to programmes of volume that will prove the commercial value of this technology, and if we do so this bright start can be a solid future.
Paul Sheerin is chief executive of Scottish Engineering