Following a COP26 event met with a lukewarm reception by many, international focus on the importance of reducing harmful emissions for industrial sectors has magnified. As coal is slowly phased out, the UK energy transition will require further investment to support scaling up of alternative energy technologies such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) and green and blue hydrogen.
Providing relevant targets are met for funding and subsequent infrastructure and technology development, the UK could become a leader in the global drive to meet net zero ambitions, according to Steve Scrimshaw, Vice President, Siemens Energy.
Placing itself on the frontlines of the war against climate change, Siemens Energy has taken an active role in reducing its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, bolstered by having its own emissions reduction targets verified by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi).
Having closely followed the UK’s climate commitments during COP26, Scrimshaw spoke to gasworld about the energy transition and how the UK can maximise its use of alternative energy technologies such as CCUS and hydrogen to meet net zero targets.
When asked which technologies could be most important to meet net zero, Scrimshaw emphasised that there is no single technological solution.
“It isn’t going to happen overnight,” he said. “We’re going to need more of everything to get there, the most important thing is that we start now.”
“The UK has made great progress in energy transition, with emissions from power generation falling by two thirds in the last 30 years.”
“The phase out of coal is well underway, as well as transition to renewables and offshore wind, but one of the reasons we’ve got this far is because we have nuclear power and natural gas for baseload power,” he added.
Given that natural gas is not regarded as a fossil fuel or as polluting as coal, Scrimshaw believes it can provide use as a transition fuel to bridge the gap between fossil fuel and hydrogen until hydrogen can be provided at a sufficient scale.
Having already reduced emissions by moving to natural gas fired power, the UK’s next step involves using CCUS to provide the final steppingstone to large-scale hydrogen deployment. This approach could be key to lowering the carbon footprint of the power generation industry – a main staple for Siemens Energy.
“It’s going to take a mix of technologies to mitigate increasing emissions, and different countries will require a different mix. It takes time to build new industries and to get technologies to maturity, so in the transition, we need to remember that every tonne of CO2 saved is going to benefit the environment,” explained Scrimshaw.
An important step for the UK on its clean energy journey is its decision to build no unabated gas power stations from 2035, to be supplemented with its phase out of coal and use of carbon capture technology.
“These small incremental steps will help get us on the way to net zero. Will gas still be the right approach 25 years from now? Probably not, but we should think more about the steps we need to take to reach the final goal.”
Could hydrogen be the answer?
During COP26 the UK Government announced its hydrogen strategy, which stated that 5 gigawatts (GW) of low carbon hydrogen should be produced by 2030, criticised by some but praised by others who see it as a reasonable starting point for a technology still very much in its infancy.
“…there is an opportunity for Britain to become a world leader.”
Scrimshaw added that building an industry from scratch is never an easy task, saying, “However, if we can get a few early hydrogen projects off the ground and create a supply chain, and only then start focusing on larger projects, there is an opportunity for Britain to become a world leader.”
Hydrogen can be seen as a contentious topic, partially due to safety concerns but also due to its levels of sustainability, as designated by its position on the colour spectrum. The two ‘cleanest’ forms of hydrogen are blue and green.
Blue hydrogen is sometimes described as ‘low-carbon CO2 hydrogen’, as it is produced from natural gas using steam reforming. By bringing together natural gas and heated water as steam, hydrogen and CO2 is formed. The CO2 is then captured via CCUS.
Green hydrogen is considered the most sustainable, as it makes use of renewable electricity to split water into its components of hydrogen and oxygen, emitting zero CO2 in the process.
Non-sustainable ‘dirty’ hydrogen is referred to as grey, brown, or black, depending on the type of coal it’s produced from. Using gasification, this ‘dirty’ hydrogen comprises most of the hydrogen used around the world and, although essential to many industries, it must be part of the ‘phasing out’ process to ensure a clean energy transition.
Scrimshaw sees both blue and green hydrogen as potentially growing to GW scale by the end of this decade, a necessary scale-up to meet the target of 7.7-terawatt hours by 2050.
As part of its renewable energy venture, Siemens Energy is working with a customer in Austria to showcase how hydrogen can be used in steelmaking.
“This plant, equipped with electrolysis technology from Siemens Energy, is capable of producing green hydrogen on a large industrial scale,” he explained.
Another project being undertaken by the company is Haru Oni in Chile, a joint effort with Porsche to explore how wind power can be used to create synthetic e-fuels to power cars.
Siemens Energy’s Hyflexpower project saw implementation last year, becoming the world’s first integrated power-to-X-to-power hydrogen gas turbine, due to reach 100% hydrogen capability within the next couple of years.
Creating a green economy
For the UK to achieve its net zero by 2050 goals, low carbon electricity generation will need to quadruple, according to Scrimshaw. This will involve creating a market for new technologies such as hydrogen power and CCUS, thus establishing a so-called ‘green economy’.
Stating that the Government must invest in all tools open to the UK, Scrimshaw added, “What we do know is there is no one silver bullet to answer the difficult question on climate change. That means embracing a balance of technology and energy sources to develop a flexible power mix.”
”…every consumer has a responsibility to tackle climate change now.”
As traditional power sources reduce in capacity, renewable generation continues to increase. According to Scrimshaw, during the UK lockdown period, the solar power industry reported a record high of 11.5% of electricity generation in May. Although a positive sign for the future of renewable energy, it also implies renewable infrastructure will have to be met with further development to meet an increase in demand.
“The simple fact is that without incentives to lower CO2 emissions, behaviours will not change, in individual countries or industries. Every politician, every company, and ultimately every consumer has a responsibility to tackle climate change now.”
Are the current net zero targets realistic?
Optimistic about the future, Scrimshaw referred to the steps already being taken by Britain to deliver on its net zero promise, such as investing in Europe’s first hydrogen plants and creating a new market for emergent technologies such as hydrogen power and CCUS.
This is mirrored by international participants at COP26, where 40 countries committed to ending all investment in new coal power generation domestically and internationally.
A separate commitment saw 20 countries, including the US, pledging to end public financing for projects that burn fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, that do not use technology to capture CO2 emissions.
The way forward
The outcome of the COP26 event was seen by many as a failure, with many delivering scathing critique on policy setters and world leaders, seeing the promises and agreements as merely ticking boxes while continuing to promote fossil fuel-based industry.
When asked to provide his post-COP26 thoughts, Scrimshaw saw it as an opportunity to begin to stop talking and start doing.
“If we’re going to make serious change, then we need to start taking action,” he said.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas with a 100-year global warming potential 28-34 times that of CO2. About 60% of global methane emissions are due to human activities in industries such as oil and gas, agriculture (including fermentation, manure management, and rice cultivation), landfills, wastewater treatment, and emissions from coal mines.
“With the Glasgow Climate Pact, the finalisation of the Paris rulebook and the commitments on coal phase out and emissions reduction, I feel that countries can now move into delivery mode and transition to lower or zero carbon alternatives.”
Recognising it as a transition period, he admits that it will take time and success COP events will need to build on the work accomplished at COP26.
The event has also been criticised for moving the goalposts with its target of limiting the climate to a 1.5C increase adjusted to 1.8C.
Stating that the target still needs to be 1.5C, Scrimshaw added that Glasgow saw a commitment to take firm action on fossil fuels, including a phase-down in coal use, which he sees as a positive step.
With so many countries joining the Global Methane Pledge (GMP), the target might just remain in touch. Possessing a 100-year global warming potential 28-34 times that of CO2, methane is considered one of the most potent greenhouse gases, responsible for a third of current warming from human activities.
According to Scrimshaw, all emissions, including those caused by F-gases, must be mitigated.
“We also need to look at how we reduce the use of F-Gases, in particular Sulfurhexafluoride, which is used as an insulator in the electricity network,” he said.
“This has a greenhouse gas warming potential around 25,000 times higher than CO2.”
The most pertinent take-away from the event echoes the statement made in a report released earlier this year by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which emphasised the need to act now.
Adding his concluding thoughts, Scrimshaw said, “It’s not just about introducing new technologies, nor is it just about saving a little energy. It’s about fundamentally changing our approach to dealing with energy in an environmentally responsible and climate-friendly way.”
“This affects everyone, whether politicians, corporations or citizens. Everyone needs to play their role.”