Offshore Wind – Exploring the advent of Green Hydrogen Power

The fourth of our series on offshore wind looks at the integration of green hydrogen technology and how its advent can shape the future of the sector

06 May 2021

The latest article in our series on offshore wind explores the exciting relationship between offshore wind and hydrogen electrolysis in more detail. Despite this being a nascent sector, the opportunities for the generation and supply of hydrogen appear to be significant and incredibly exciting as we move towards our net zero targets.

As briefly discussed in our first article in this series, participants in the offshore wind sector are exploring the role that hydrogen electrolysis units (once integrated into an offshore wind project) can play in converting the wind capacity into ‘green’ hydrogen (being hydrogen that is produced from renewable energy, as opposed to ‘blue’ hydrogen which is produced by the reforming of methane into hydrogen and carbon dioxide). The driving force behind this emerging technology arises from the push to achieve the UK’s legally binding net-zero target, which requires alternative methods of delivering, generating and distributing energy to be explored. 

Additionally, and as discussed in our article focussing on supply chain challenges, a move towards net-zero requires the decarbonisation of the wider supply chain and industries that are, at present, heavily reliant on fossil fuels, such as transport, shipping and heavy industry. There is also the potential for a fully sustainable supply chain in the production of green hydrogen, something which we explore in this article.

The advent of the synergy between electrolysis and offshore wind could revolutionise the use of offshore wind, its construction and ultimately how power is produced, used, exported and stored.

Why hydrogen?

Much has been made of the role of hydrogen going forward. The Climate Change Committee has been clear that large volumes of hydrogen will be essential as an energy source in years to come for us to hit our net zero targets. 

Hydrogen can be used in a wide variety of ways such as heating, storing energy, fuel for transport and of course as a product in industrial processes. Hydrogen gas has various properties which make it an attractive option for different stakeholders in the supply chain including:

  1. Green credentials - when burned, hydrogen emits no carbon dioxide. This is obviously a significant attraction to utilise the element and which allows for many technologies to continue to use methods associated with traditional fossil fuels (for example, steel making where the process is already substituting in hydrogen in many pathfinder plants).
  2. Familiarity / smoother integration - given hydrogen is a gas, there are many synergies with existing technologies and energy delivery which facilitate the move to hydrogen:
  • hydrogen, as a gas will reach consumers in a form which they are already familiar
  • energy companies (particularly oil and gas companies) know how to refine, produce and transport gas
  • switching various existing technologies from natural gas to hydrogen does not require much technical ingenuity.

At present, there are various trials across the UK for the use of hydrogen appliances in homes[1] (hydrogen is touted as being an effective means for decarbonising the heating systems in residential, commercial and industrial properties by diluting or replacing methane gas mains with hydrogen); cities in the UK are using emission-free hydrogen powered buses[2] and exploring the options of converting diesel-electric trains to hydrogen fuel cell trains.[3] What is clear is that hydrogen will be a major constituent of net zero and renewable energy developers are already looking at the types of customers they should be lining up and futureproofing their projects. (See our Net Zero Blog article by Ross Fairley). 

Integrating Hydrogen Electrolysis Technology And The Offshore Wind

Many developers and contractors in the offshore sector are exploring the viability of integrating electrolysis units to offshore wind projects.[4] The sector is clearly excited about the potential for large scale deployment of green hydrogen in these projects. Ancillary benefits of such integration could include an alternative approach to transmission of hydrogen onshore via pipelines and ships, which may possibly remove the need for long transmission cable routes offshore (which are becoming increasingly challenging as projects migrate further offshore) thereby mitigating much of the power loss associated with long cable runs.

Electrolysis, which is the process of using electricity to split water into its compound elements, hydrogen and water, is a promising option for hydrogen production. The only resources required to produce electrolytic hydrogen are water and electricity- two things offshore wind arrays have an abundance of. Stating the obvious, it can only be green hydrogen if the electricity is from renewable sources so hydrogen could be a massive boost for the sector. Integrating the electrolysis into a project can prevent transport losses between the offshore wind turbine generator and the onshore connection point (as noted above) and losses due to electrical conversion. Electrolysis units could also be powered by the excess electricity produced by the windfarms, instead of curtailing the electricity as is commonly done. This would also allow for flexibility in shifting production to best match resource availability with system operational needs and market factors electrolysers are able to quickly ramp up or down to compensate for fluctuations in the energy market.

The introduction and integration of electrolysis units into the project will likely be managed as part of the multi-contract approach that we regularly see used by employer/developers in the offshore wind sector. This approach does give rise to design, construction and programming interfaces which need considered and managed. Burges Salmon has a vast experience in advising employers and developers on various and optimum construction methods, the risks and mitigation strategies with multi-contract methods of procurement. The deployment of this new technology will require enhanced contractual protection which developers will need to consider, for example, defect protection relating to serial and latent defects will need to be examined. Developers will also need to consider how the integration of the new technology will affect their insurance arrangements.

Creation Of An Offshore Wind To Hydrogen Sector

As noted above, developing green hydrogen in the ensuing years will be critical to achieving cost reduction, assisting with challenges in transmission and growing a significant manufacturing and export industry.

There is a great opportunity to create a new and major manufacturing sector for the UK. The overall demand for hydrogen by 2050 in the UK is predicted to be of a comparable size to the UK’s current electricity system. Between offshore wind deployment and the manufacturing of electrolyser technology could result in the generation of thousands of new jobs. 

The UK should be looking to explore different models of generating and transporting hydrogen. The vast number of offshore wind projects in the pipeline and high demand (as well as a looming 2035 and 2050 deadlines for net zero and emissions targets) provides ample opportunity to deploy technology demonstration projects. Ambitious developers, engineers and scientists can test and explore different models of production and transportation on a range of offshore projects to allow the UK to continue to be at the forefront of the global wind market.

Infrastructure

As was explored in previous articles, the distribution of energy through the network is a key concern as fixed bottom projects move further offshore and with the advent of floating wind. Developers are increasingly having to consider how electricity will be brought to its end consumers.

Electrical transmission from wind farms nearer the shore normally uses high voltage alternating currents, high voltage direct current systems will be required as transmission distances approach 100 miles and beyond. However, the latter requires considerably larger and more costly offshore and onshore transformer and converter substations. Hydrogen integration could be a possible solution, by converting generated electricity to hydrogen at the offshore site, hydrogen can be transported and/or stored, circumventing this issue and also bypassing issues of energy conversion losses. The optionality offered by hydrogen could be significant in freeing the transmission system from the constraints of grid connectivity and even point to point connections (depending on the transmission solution utilised for any given project). The potential to construct windfarms further offshore could unlock the potential for larger scale installations which would have plentiful wind supply and be free from concerns around the impact on shipping routes, the environmental and polluting the mainland landscape with onshore substations and associated infrastructure. 

The increasing number of offshore projects, the impact that these have on the mainland landscape, and potential issues with overlapping cables means that the traditional method of radial connection points for each offshore wind farm may become a thing of the past. Strategic landing hubs for neighbouring arrays are being explored as an option. But generating hydrogen through electrolysis offshore may mitigate this issue.

Stakeholders are examining the suitability of repurposing existing oil and gas infrastructure to be used as either a transmission and/or storage solution or as an offshore project hub. For example, the existing pipelines could be used to transport the hydrogen to the mainland. Pipelines may also serve to store the hydrogen itself, which can decrease the cost of storage onshore. The existing platforms could house electrolyser units or act as operation and maintenance bases and for accommodation for the relevant O&M crews, if proximity (and electrical connectedness) of the platform allows. The platforms and rigs themselves could also be used to store the hydrogen. As the construction industry has moved towards a greener approach, repurposing of existing assets is becoming more common place and Burges Salmon are familiar with advising parties in relation to the contractual considerations arising out of such an endeavour. 

Similarly, with the UK encouraging the regeneration and reconstruction of many of its ports to aid in expansion of offshore wind locally, there is an opportunity to include the hydrogen infrastructure in the port regeneration and upgrading of industrial hubs. Already, many of the industrial processes that use hydrogen produced from fossil fuels are located in coastal industrial areas. Hydrogen transported directly from offshore wind sources could also fuel ships and trucks serving the ports, the offshore wind farm itself and power industrial facilities nearby the ports. As offshore wind to hydrogen becomes a reality, green hydrogen could really become greener.

The development of hydrogen infrastructure will become increasingly important if hydrogen is to become mainstream in sectors such as transport. To stimulate the commercial demand for hydrogen, the network of infrastructure must develop at the same rate as the technology used to generate it. Therefore, developers will need to ensure, for example, that hydrogen refuelling systems are integrated into the transport network and that the storage facilities and pipelines for transporting the hydrogen are sufficient to carry increasing demand.

For the UK to realise its full green hydrogen potential, the transformation needs investment along with the engineering, scientific and financial strength of the renewable and oil and gas industry, of which the UK is well placed to and experienced at leading from the front. 

Burges Salmon is already advising on a number of hydrogen projects and speaking to renewable energy developers on plans to implement green hydrogen. We are members of Renewable UK’s Hydrogen Working Group and sit on the Executive of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association which lobbies and monitors hydrogen developments and assesses new regulation.

For the other articles in our offshore wind series, please see:

This article was written by Lloyd James, Craig Bruce and Campbell Hutcheon.

[1] https://www.homebuilding.co.uk/news/hydrogen-heating

[2] https://www.firstbus.co.uk/aberdeen/plan-journey/hydrogen-buses 

[3] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200227-how-hydrogen-powered-trains-can-tackle-climate-change#:~:text=The%20train%2C%20called%20Hydroflex%2C%20is%20the%20UK%E2%80%99s%20first,tracks%20at%20the%20Quinton%20Rail%20Technology%20Centre%2C%20a

[4] https://www.offshorewind.biz/2021/01/15/meet-vindo-the-worlds-first-energy-island/

Key contact

Lloyd James

Lloyd James Partner

  • Construction and Engineering
  • Energy and Utilities 
  • Infrastructure

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