In this guest post, Ann Stewart, of Weald Action Group, argues that IGas plans to produce hydrogen from fossil fuels in Surrey appear to be an attempt to greenwash continued extraction of unabated methane. She says the schemes, if approved, would lock the county into decades of emissions under the false premise of contributing to net zero.
IGas is proposing to install hydrogen generation systems at two sites in Surrey. At present it has an online exhibition about the plans for one site, at Albury, and has said it will submit a planning application in July.
Hydrogen burns without producing any carbon dioxide and other emissions except water. Consequently, IGas is claiming that its hydrogen production can be part of the UK’s transition to net zero emissions by 2050.
This is misleading on a number of grounds. The plans will, instead, lead to a significant increase in direct emissions at their sites in Surrey.
Hydrogen production and its emissions
IGas proposes using a process called Steam Methane Reformation (SMR). This is a system that mixes natural gas (methane) with high temperature steam (7000 C – 10000 C).
IGas states that SMR “is a widely used and safe process to produce hydrogen”.
This is true to some extent. Hydrogen is already an established global industry. A 2019 report by the International Energy agency (IEA) stated that globally 6% of all gas production and 2% of coal production was used to produce hydrogen. However, it also stated that this produced about 830 million tonnes of CO2 each year. This is equivalent to the combined annual CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia.
Hydrogen production results in significantly higher greenhouse gas emissions than using natural gas directly. This is mainly for two reasons:
- The SMR process requires a great deal of heat. Presumably, IGas will be burning its own gas to produce this heat. This combustion process will release climate changing emissions.
- All conversion processes from one form of energy to another result in some loss. A recent parliamentary briefing states we will need to use 15-66% more natural gas to make up for energy losses should we replace natural gas with hydrogen made with the SMR process in our heating systems.
Both of these processes mean that additional natural gas is required to make up the shortfall. This additional gas results in additional emissions. The IGas claim that its hydrogen, to be used in vehicle fuel cells etc, is “displacing the diesel which would otherwise have been used for fuel” is misleading because it does not take into account the full cost in terms of emissions.
Production on the site
IGas plan to use a modular system produced in the US by Bayo Tech. Their specifications include:
IGas states that its system will avoid nitrogen oxides (NOx)and sulphur oxides (SOx) emissions released when burning diesel.
It did not state what would happen to the SOx that is removed as part of the hydrogen purification process.
In the Bayo Tech specifications, It would appear that NOx emissions comply with US local limits but we are not clear how this relates with UK limits. However, this does suggest that all IGas calculations concerning their emissions levels need to be scrutinised in detail.
Hydrogen as part of the energy transition
In its proposal, IGas refers to the role of hydrogen in the government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial revolution, as if its proposal were part of this plan. It is not.
The Ten Point Plan has two key proposals for hydrogen production:
- Hydrogen production from fossils fuels but with Carbon Capture Use and Storage (CCUS).
- Green hydrogen
Fossil hydrogen using CCUS captures most of the emissions and prevents their release into the atmosphere. This is known as “blue’ hydrogen.
Blue hydrogen is, at present, very expensive and as yet there are no fully-functioning, large-scale projects in the UK or globally. The UK government has recently started investing in developing this technology in six low carbon hubs. They are all large industrial clusters with very high rates of industrial emissions and none of these are in the south of England. It is the scale of the projected emissions savings and the importance of the industries and jobs in these clusters that justifies both government and industry investment. However, only two of these low carbon hubs are projected to be completed by 2030.
Clearly, the project proposed by IGas is not the kind of project proposed in the Ten Point Plan. Instead, it will commit Surrey to allowing the production of “grey” hydrogen, that is hydrogen that is highly polluting, and which adds significantly to the county’s greenhouse gas emissions. IGas acknowledge they are producing grey hydrogen but say there are future opportunities for the emissions to be captured and stored. In fact, there are no plans, as far as we know, to develop any CCUS facilities in the south in the next decade.
Green hydrogen is produced from water using electrolysis. Where the electricity comes from renewable resources it results in very low emissions indeed.
There are plans for such a facility in the south-east UK, in Kent. Ryse Hydrogen is building a plant in Herne Bay, using electricity from the nearby wind farm and hope to be in production by 2022.
The IGas implication that its proposal is part of the Ten Point Plan is, in our opinion, highly misleading. It is yet another example of greenwashing: a fossil fuel company trying to claim some renewable credentials that are completely unwarranted.
The government was due to produce a hydrogen strategy earlier this year, but it has been delayed and it is now due to be published in July 2021. Once this strategy is published, any role for onshore gas sites, should there be any, will become much clearer.
What does seem clear already is that hydrogen production would increase greenhouse gas emissions in Surrey at a time when the county says it is endeavouring to reduce them.
Oil and gas oil sites are already a point source of large amounts of greenhouse gases.
However, at present gas produced at the current sites is distributed and therefore the emissions are released over a wider area and not all contained specifically in the county. Hydrogen production would mean that all those emissions would be released at the site.
In terms of global warming this is irrelevant, once in the atmosphere the effects of these emissions are global.
But if Surrey commits to emission reduction targets it could find that its reduced emissions are simply replaced by the new emissions produced alongside the hydrogen.
The Weald action Group considers that IGas, in its presentation of this proposal, is misleading residents of Surrey.
Without CCUS, hydrogen production would increase greenhouse gas emissions significantly and there are no plans for CCUS in Surrey.
The urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avert catastrophic climate change is now being recognised in the most unlikely of circles.
Even the International Energy Agency, in a recent report, stated categorically that “there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway”.
Surrey needs to reject this attempt by IGas to avert the decline that its industry faces by misleading residents and work towards promoting genuine, low carbon industries.