Only Connect: Joining Up Wales’s Clean Energy Opportunities

Wales has immense potential in the clean energy transition but it will only work with a strategy for connecting them up, argues Sanjoy Sen.

Forgive the early pun but Wales is a highly energised country. Or at least, it ought to be.

Whilst the traditional extraction of finite resources (coal mining) and their processing (oil refining) are well past their peak, Wales is ideally placed to deliver on the clean energy transition.

From an engineer’s perspective, opportunities abound. But if Wales is serious about delivering green jobs, growing the economy and improving quality of life, it’s time to start joining these up. 

The UK’s main energy demands are three-fold: transportation (mostly oil-fuelled), electricity (generated from natural gas, nuclear power and renewables) and heat (chiefly gas). Hydrogen can be used interchangeably in all of the above; joining these up for the first time creates the clean, highly-flexible hydrogen economy. No wonder therefore that businesses are calling on the Chancellor to roll out a UK-wide hydrogen strategy.

From a Welsh perspective, hydrogen might join up many of the opportunities identified in the IWA’s 2018 assessment of the energy transition. And whilst the Welsh Government has already identified hydrogen’s potential, again, it’s time to start putting the pieces together. 

Without delving too far into the science, hydrogen, the tiniest molecule out there, doesn’t exist in large quantities on earth. Instead, it is mostly made from fossil fuels (‘grey’ hydrogen) with the cleaner alternative of using low-carbon electricity to ‘zap’ water (‘green hydrogen’) on the rise.

Once produced, it forms a vital means of storing and transporting energy, matching up supply with demand. (Of course, as home to Dinorwig, Wales is no stranger to large-scale energy storage and rapid-response generation – demand for this is set to escalate as we start plugging in our cars.)

Naysayers should note that the UK can deliver on low-carbon power when it puts its mind to it: we are world number one in installed offshore wind capacity with costs plummeting. Early developments off North Wales (North Hoyle, Rhyl Flats) demonstrated technical viability, paving the way for the giant Gwynt y Môr.

The next big opportunity is to access the faster, steadier winds far from shore via deepwater, floating installations. Again, Wales should be an early contender with some 100 GW of potential in the Celtic Sea. Recognising wind’s Achilles heel, developers are already looking to hydrogen to convert their fluctuating output into storable energy that doesn’t risk de-stabilising the grid.   

Cancellation of the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon was contentious but as the first of its kind, critical factors (cost, environmental impact) appeared somewhat unpredictable. Converting tidal energy into hydrogen would, however, have answered a key issue from the 2016 Hendry Report: how to match tidal output (predictable but variable throughout the day) with national demand.

“It’s not unthinkable for TfW to set an early pace in zero-emission transportation.”

Storing up large power spikes generated at, say, 2am for use at peak times potentially transforms the economics. With its 320 MW capacity, Swansea was a potential ‘pathfinder’ for much larger schemes, including Colwyn Bay, generating vast supply chain demand plus export opportunities.

But even as a one-off, it might have acted as a significant catalyst for local regeneration. Let’s hope tidal can be re-visited, this time with hydrogen as a potential ‘game changer’.

The earliest tangible benefit from the transition might be improved transportation. High costs have proven a stumbling block to the electrification of the Welsh rail network in recent years, a thorny political issue.

But new developments in fuel-cell hydrogen trains could now be the answer: these offer the advantages of conventional electric trains (speed, de-carbonisation, comfort) without the prohibitive cost of adding miles of overhead cables.

Transport for Wales is already ordering modular, battery-diesel hybrids to help keep smaller lines viable – and with the manufacturer offering the potential to convert these over to fuel-cell hydrogen, it’s not unthinkable for TfW to set an early pace in zero-emission transportation. 

Heating, however, remains stubbornly gas-dependent. At a domestic level, research is under way to understand how appliances can handle hydrogen (blended with methane or as a substitute) and even how heat pumps might do away with boilers altogether.

In addition, Wales has a major opportunity in de-carbonising industrial heat with the South Wales Industrial Cluster formed to tackle current emissions of 16 million tonnes of CO2 per year, some of the highest levels in the UK.

At the heart of this lies the Port Talbot steelworks, single-handedly pumping out some 50% of Wales’s industrial emissions. Currently a conventional, integrated plant, new technology could prove its salvation.

“It’s the north that offers the latest opportunities and the most potential megawatts.”

Developed in Sweden, the Hybrit pilot process uses green hydrogen in place of coal-derived coke. And with an ambitious goal of making steel production carbon-neutral, German giant ThyssenKrupp is working along similar lines.

With the UK government set to turn on the spending taps post-COVID, it makes sense to safeguard Port Talbot’s future by backing investment in ‘green steel’ – and, critically, by ensuring it gets priority in major public projects. 

North Wales has the distinction of being doubly-forgotten: by Cardiff and by Westminster. Yet it’s the north that offers the latest opportunities and the most potential megawatts. This is particularly significant given the blow of recent manufacturing job losses at Airbus Broughton

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Cadent (formerly National Grid) propose to supply hydrogen to major industrial users in north-west England. This otherwise ‘grey hydrogen’ would be cleaned up to ‘blue’ by capturing the CO2 generated. This would be transported to redundant gas fields in Liverpool Bay via re-purposed infrastructure in Flintshire making Wales an early leader in large-scale carbon capture and storage. 

But the north comes into its own in terms of nuclear potential. With a nameplate capacity comparable to ten Swansea lagoons (but with 24-7 rock-steady output), Anglesey’s Wylfa Newydd remains on-hold as Hitachi awaits a funding solution.

Meanwhile, Trawsfynydd is emerging as an early favourite for Rolls-Royce’s Small Modular Reactors. Needless to say, other UK nuclear regions are also keen to get in on the act: Wales needs to land these big fish quickly. 

Wearing my engineer’s (hard) hat, Wales is a dream. But delivering on this potential requires political willpower to back up the technical know-how and enthusiasm. With both Germany and the EU rolling out their hydrogen strategies in recent months, it’s time we followed suit. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Photo by Nicholas Doherty on Unsplash

Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer and a former Welsh Conservative candidate for Alyn & Deeside at the 2019 general election.

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