The road to large-scale hydrogen production is likely to be long and riddled with tough challenges, particularly if it is to become a fixture offshore.
But “novel solutions” are being dreamt up to help speed up the process.
Electrolysers inside wind turbines, artificial energy islands and repurposed oil platforms are among the ideas being looked at by engineers hoping to make production a reality at sea.
Jorg Aarnes, global lead, low carbon solutions at DNV GL, said innovation was taking place throughout the value chain of a hydrogen industry estimated to be capable of generating $2.5 trillion per year in revenues by 2050 and supporting 30 million jobs.
And it’s not just major companies who are involved, even start-ups are taking the initiative, Aarnes said, adding: “There’s room for everyone.”
Momentum has been growing behind calls to accelerate the development of hydrogen production technology for quite some time.
Hydrogen has been identified by the oil and gas industry as an area where it can prove its worth in the race to a net-zero emissions future.
A new poll by DNV GL indicates the sector has been bitten by the hydrogen bug and is increasingly ready for action.
A fifth of oil and gas professionals said their organisation is actively entering the hydrogen market, according to the survey, which had more than 1,000 respondents.
Forty-two per cent intended to invest in hydrogen in the year leading up to the Covid-19-induced price crash, up from 20% previously.
Liv Hovem, chief executive of DNV GL’s oil and gas division, said the level of positivity surprised her initially, but could be explained by the meteoric rise of climate issues up the oil industry’s list of priorities last year.
“The industry has been challenged to articulate how it will be part of the solution to climate change and hydrogen plays an important role in that,” Hovem explained.
The survey was conducted pre-Covid, but that doesn’t totally debunk the findings, insisted Aarnes.
“What we have seen in the market recently is companies reconfirming they will stay true to their climate targets,” he said.
“We’ve also talked to specific companies about their plans within hydrogen and CCS (carbon capture and storage) and asked if they will continue those.
“The feedback we’re getting is that those things are not being slashed. They’re cutting back on other operations but moving forward with the low-carbon agenda.”
Neptune Energy, for example, is involved in a pioneering pilot project to create the first offshore hydrogen plant in the Dutch sector of the North Sea.
A megawatt electrolyser will be placed within a sea container and installed on Neptune’s Q13a platform, which is fully electrified.
The hydrogen produced by the electrolyser will be transported via an existing pipeline to an offshore structure where it will be used to generate electricity. In April, energy firms Eneco and Gasunie joined as project partners.
Elsewhere, a consortium led by the Oil and Gas Technology Centre identified four technologies as suitable for hydrogen production offshore: Steam methane reforming with carbon capture and storage, gas to graphene technology, PEM electrolysis and alkaline electrolysis.
Despite the UK Government snubbing a funding bid at the end of 2019, the group still hoped to create a test centre at Flotta Oil Terminal in Orkney for trialling technologies with a view to deploying them offshore.
But putting hydrogen production kit on offshore oil platforms presents serious challenges and has prompted some critics to ask, quite logically, why you would do anything offshore that you can do onshore?
Aarnes said he “wouldn’t necessarily” recommend putting steam methane reforming equipment on a platform due to its size.
Proposals for the construction of artificial energy islands could be an option, he said.
Denmark, which is becoming a real leader on the green energy front, last month confirmed plans to build an island hosting large numbers of wind turbines. Power from the islands could be used to produce green hydrogen to fuel heavy industry or transport.
Hydrogen plays a big part in the plans of natural islands such as Orkney, as well as Rathlin and Valentia, off Ireland.
Electrolysers within wind turbines, as mentioned by Aarnes, has also been thought of.
Storage and clean fuel firm ITM Power and Danish firm Orsted have proposed putting this equipment in the tower, “or very near it”, with appropriate power flow control and water supplied to it.
The pair said this may represent a better design concept for bulk hydrogen production than electrolysers at a terminal or platform, away from the wind turbine generator, due to reduced costs and energy losses.
Expanding hydrogen’s use as an energy carrier won’t be a breeze onshore, either. Nor will hydrogen revolutionise our way of living in the near to medium term, said Hovem, particularly in the context of the level of upheaval being experienced due to Covid-19.
From a cost perspective, storing and transporting hydrogen is more expensive than natural gas, which will count against it in some quarters.
Moreover, hydrogen fuel cell cars are not overly competitive when stacked up against battery electric vehicles, said Aarnes.
Hydrogen is much more likely to be prevalent in heavy vehicles such as buses, trucks and ferries than cars.
The UK Government would like to introduce hydrogen as a way of heating buildings, but as Aarnes points out, you can’t have one house on the street using hydrogen and another using natural gas.
Proving hydrogen is as safe as natural gas for heating buildings will be absolutely critical, he said.
DNV GL is involved in building this safety case, through the Hy4Heat programme, with tests being carried out on three specially constructed houses at its test site in Cumbria.
Also, constructing the requisite infrastructure is a lengthy process, so by the end of this decade we will only see “pockets of houses” being heated by hydrogen, Aarnes said.
And while hydrogen gas produced from renewable energy (green hydrogen) is the industry’s ultimate destination, analysis shows that the sector can only realistically scale up with hydrogen produced from fossil fuels combined with CCS technology (blue hydrogen).
Hovem said: “We could sit as a society and wait for the perfect solution, that all hydrogen is produced from renewables but that takes too much time. The way forward is to use existing infrastructure and energy sources, and building up CCS, which will allow us to start decarbonising almost immediately.”