Planners oppose IGas grey hydrogen plans for Surrey

Surrey council planners have recommended refusal of plans by IGas for hydrogen production in the green belt.

Steam Methane Reformation unit used to produce hydrogen. Photo: IGas

They described it as “inappropriate development” and said any benefits would not outweigh potential harm.

IGas has applied to install and use two steam methane reformation (SMR) units at its oil and gas field at Bletchingley near Redhill, for up to 15 years.

The units would convert gas produced at Bletchingley to hydrogen, at up to 2,000kg a day, seven days a week. There are no plans to capture the carbon dioxide produced by the process, though IGas has said this was being pursued.

Green belt policy seeks to guard against inappropriate development, which should not be approved except in very special circumstances.

IGas said the special circumstances included growing demand for hydrogen and government support for the fuel in the transition to a zero carbon economy. The company said an early start in hydrogen production would act as spur to development in the rest of the UK.

But planning officers said the plant, equipment, bunds and pipeline route would “encroach on the openness of the green belt”.

In a report published yesterday (6 September 2022), they said:

“The industrial nature and scale of the development would not preserve or enhance the openness of the Green Belt and the applicant has failed to demonstrate factors that amount to very special circumstances which clearly outweigh harm to the Green Belt by reason of its inappropriateness.”

The report said officers were not satisfied that hydrogen production must take place at Bletchingley and that the gas could not be transported to an off-site hydrogen production facility where the carbon could be captured.

IGas submitted a planning application for Bletchingley nearly a year ago. The proposal is due to be decided by Surrey County Council’s planning committee at a meeting on Wednesday 14 September 2022 but was later postponed. A similar application was also submitted for the IGas site at Albury, also in Surrey.

SMR hydrogen generator. Image: IGas

Hydrogen can be produced in several ways.

The Bletchingley SMR scheme proposes to make grey hydrogen from methane, without carbon capture, use or storage (CCUS).

Blue hydrogen also uses methane but does capture, store or use the carbon dioxide.

Green hydrogen uses electrolysis to extract gas from water.

IGas currently burns methane from Bletchingley in a generator to produce electricity, which then goes into the power network.

The company said the hydrogen scheme would benefit climate change by generating fewer carbon emissions than the current use of Bletchingley methane and by providing hydrogen instead of diesel for local transport.

But the planners said IGas’s proposal would not be low carbon hydrogen production.

They said it was uncertain how the capture of carbon dioxide would be retrofitted and managed. They also said the downstream use of hydrogen could not be considered in the decision because this was uncertain.

The report acknowledged that the government wants hydrogen to be part of the UK’s energy mix.

But the UK hydrogen strategy says production should be low carbon and where it is produced from fossil fuels it should be accompanied by CCUS.

The report said:

“Officers are not satisfied that the current proposal … would be compatible with the ambitions, targets and proposals set out in the Hydrogen Strategy for low carbon hydrogen production and therefore Government targets and ambitions.”

They also noted that government plans for the early development of CCUS technology were likely to be based in industrial centres with links to CO2 storage sites.

The IGas scheme, which would also add compressors, tanks, three pipelines, a tanker loading area, generator, operations room and extra lighting, has attracted local criticism.

A community engagement exercise by IGas reportedly saw objectors outnumber supporters by four to one. The lack of CCUS was the main objection.

A public consultation by Surrey County Council attracted 15 public letters of objection, with concerns about noise, air quality impacts, climate change and traffic. There were no public letters of support.

There were also formal objections about climate change and the effect of nitrogen pollution on nearby ancient woodland from local groups, including Keep Kirdford and Wisborough Green, Weald Action Group, the Woodland Trust, ACE Tillingbourne Group and Save Surrey Countryside.

Most of the technical consultees objected to the proposal.

But the Green Future Teams at Surrey County Council said that without carbon capture the plan would generate significant greenhouse gas emissions and should be refused.

It was incorrect, the team said, for IGas to claim that the scheme, and others like it, would help reduce carbon emissions faster than required under the UK’s sixth carbon budget, covering the period 2033-37.

IGas said use of hydrogen from Bletchingley instead of diesel could save 2,769 tonnes of CO2 per annum.

But the council’s Green Futures Team said the scheme would emit 57,270 tonnes of CO2 over its 15-year lifetime if production emissions were included.

Using estimated emissions for 2018, the SMR facility would account for 1.2% of the emissions of the district of Tandridge and 0.11% of the emissions attributable to the county of Surrey, the report said.

The SMR units would measure 16.5m by 3m and 3.7-7.6m high. The transportation unit, where tanks would be filled, would be about the size of standard shipping container (12.2m long, 2.4m wide, 2.6m high). The proposed generator would be 8m high at the top of the stack.

The planners said the development would not protect and enhance the character of the landscape nor visual amenities. But they said it would not result in a permanent change in the local landscape

They also said the scheme did not breach local planning policies on lighting, noise, surface water or traffic.

The planners said there would no encroachment on nearby ancient woodland and they were satisfied that a fence installed to ensure there would be no harm to it. There was also likely to be no harm to heritage assets.

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