BOC: Fuel efficiency is a key step towards UK’s energy transition

As the global focus on decarbonisation intensifies, the growing hype around low- and zero-carbon fuels such as green hydrogen continues to capture the imagination and fuel discussion and debate around the elimination of fossil fuel-based energy, leading to the seemingly inevitable switch to renewable-based sources. But could this be distracting us from more immediate concerns? For successful and cost-effective fuel-switching to begin, industry must focus on the efficiency of our current energy sources and also continue to build infrastructure capable of handling the increased demand for low carbon fuels.

At least, that is the view of energy development expert Wayne Bridger, who is currently the UK Sales Manager for Decarbonisation and Hydrogen Applications at BOC UK & Ireland. Having overseen the company’s involvement in the recent BEIS Industrial Fuel Switching competition, Bridger was responsible for mobilising the largest hydrogen supply chain BOC has ever assembled.

The trials sought to demonstrate that energy intensive, hard-to-abate sectors could be decarbonised by switching production to hydrogen in high temperature processes such as glass, cement, lime and direct firing boiler applications.

The UK Gov. Dept. BEIS has split funding awards into two separate phases, the £55m ($67m) competition supports innovation in the development of pre-commercial fuel switch and fuel switch enabling technology for the industrial sector, to help industry switch from high to lower carbon fuels. For Phase 1 of the competition, funding of between £50,000 ($60.5k) to £300,000 ($363k) was awarded through Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) contracts, available per application.

Having opened on 11th November 2022, Phase 2 of the competition will provide funding for projects to demonstrate fuel switch and fuel switch enabling solutions, with one to six million pounds available per project. BOC’s involvement in Phase 1 saw it participate in a cluster of projects including large scale demonstration trials at Pilkington Glass in St. Helens, cement kiln trials at Ribblesdale, Lime kiln firing in Derbyshire and a direct firing boiler for Unilever.

Commenting on the Unilever project, which launched in March of this year, Bridger explained, “This was a direct fuel switching trial from natural gas to 100% hydrogen which successfully demonstrated the feasibility to run an industrial boiler successfully. We ran the trial over a four- or five-week period and we were able to run daily at 100% hydrogen firing.”

This demonstration allowed the company to prove it could operate fuel switching without interruption at very large-scale industrial operation. The trial is believed to be the first large-scale demonstration of 100% hydrogen-firing in a consumer goods production environment anywhere in the world.

As part of the project, both 100% hydrogen and a blend of natural gas and hydrogen was used to fire a boiler which provides steam for the production process. The demonstration enabled the company to showcase hydrogen technology to provide ‘critical evidence’ to enable decarbonisation of a range of industry sectors, potentially making a critical contribution to the UK’s journey to Net Zero.

“…it’s essential to ensure industry has a practical understanding of using hydrogen.”

Despite the success of the trials, Bridger emphasised the need for industry to focus on fuel efficiency as well as renewable-based fuels such as hydrogen, which he sees more as an ‘end game’, as the infrastructure to deliver at scale develops further – but this still requires significant time and money investment.

“I think the focus on green hydrogen – the end game – may take away the focus on the here and now to a large extent. I think it’s essential to ensure industry has a practical understanding of using hydrogen, but I think that it’s equally important to emphasise that fuel efficiency is really the starting point,” he said.

By implementing existing technology and practices, industry could take a more measured approach to decarbonising – particularly in combustion-based processes. According to Bridger, by switching from air fuel to oxygen-based combustion may deliver fuel savings in the range of 15% upwards towards 50%, a significant potential saving of fuel.

“So why not take advantage of that now? And if we can do that in conjunction with other simple cost-saving and energy efficiency measures before getting to the more difficult end-stage, which is fuel switching, then that to me seems like a really sensible pathway.”

A steppingstone to green hydrogen

There are a range of methods widely considered for large-scale generation of low carbon hydrogen. Green hydrogen produced by water electrolysis driven by renewable electricity is considered the most mature renewable pathway and others such as solar via photocatalytic process are in early phases of development.

Easier to produce at scale now from existing SMR or ATR technologies, blue hydrogen is derived from natural gas in combination with carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technologies. Blue is considered by some as less attractive than ‘zero-carbon’ fuels such as its green cousin, but a ‘twin track’ approach is critical to early scale up. Both technologies need to be used to accelerate the energy transition and blue is currently best placed to act as the ‘balancing technology’ supporting early, large scale-up in capacity.

Blue hydrogen follows the same processing route as grey hydrogen to produce molecules, but the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are captured during production, so they’re kept out of the atmosphere. According to the Global CCS Institute, grey hydrogen – which uses more carbon-intensive steam methane reforming – makes up approximately 98% of current hydrogen production, while blue hydrogen accounts for just 1%.

Included in BEIS’ cluster sequencing announcement earlier this year, the bp-owned H2Teesside project aims to produce 1GW (gigawatt) of CCUS-enabled blue hydrogen upon its projected start-up in 2027. The project will also capture and send for storage up to two million tonnes of CO2 per year via the Northern Endurance Partnership (NEP) pipeline – equivalent to capturing the emissions from the heating of one million UK households.

Despite its status as a very useful tool for decarbonisation, blue hydrogen does have its critics.

A study conducted by researchers at Cornell and Stanford Universities showed that full life cycle GHG emissions from burning blue hydrogen for heating were more than 20% greater than using conventional natural gas.

These conclusions have been challenged by other experts, however, who state that the study’s conclusions are based on data from a first-of-its-kind steam methane forming plant with CO2 capture that was originally designed to showcase technical feasibility rather than optimise efficiency.

However, blue hydrogen proponents have suggested that – as a mid-term solution – the benefits of driving investment in and deployment of CCUS technologies make blue hydrogen an attractive bridging technology.

Blue hydrogen could enable industry to make use of a lower carbon fuel source while mitigating some of the perceived risks currently associated with the scale up and production of green hydrogen, such as the sometimes unreliable nature and availability of sufficient renewable energy.

“In the UK, the risk with green hydrogen is that it’s currently frequently reliant on high quantities of variable renewables availability and weather conditions have to be right to generate it,” explained Bridger.

To decarbonise hard-to-abate industries such as steelmaking, the current rate of global hydrogen production would need to be doubled. To do the same with green hydrogen, production would have to increase by an estimated 200-fold.

Heavy industries are among the hardest to decarbonize Image: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries / IEA World Energy Outlook 2019

Cost may also be a rate limiting factor for capacity expansion when considering green hydrogen. This is not limited only to the price of renewable electricity – which is rapidly becoming more cost-competitive with other energy sources – but also the current cost and availability of electrolysers themselves. So how far behind the cost curve is green hydrogen?

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), if rapid scale-up takes place in the next decade, green hydrogen is expected to start becoming competitive with blue hydrogen by 2030 in a wide range of countries, e.g., those with electricity prices of $30/MWh (megawatt hour).

“This is the scale of the mountain we need to climb [with green hydrogen], so blue seems to be a very sensible route for the foreseeable. It’s available and it’s scalable and we can say with certainty.”

Do the easy things now

As decarbonisation continues to become a priority of industry both in the UK and globally, there is a growing awareness of the availability of funding to support trials such as those conducted by BOC. According to Bridger, this awareness is driven by industry’s desire to achieve something ‘meaningful’ sooner than the Net Zero 2050 target.

“Most of the industrial organisations that I talk have plans to achieve a substantial and measurable decarbonisation by 2030, so I do see a lot of people bringing forward their expectations and building pathways that take them substantially down the road to decarbonisation by 2030,” he said.

To achieve these goals, he advises industry to ‘do the easy things now’, adding, ‘There’s a multitude of existing technologies that we can rely on and they’re relatively easy to implement. I would continue to urge industry to act now – utilising well established technologies to deliver energy efficiency now is unlikely to lead to regretful decisions.”

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