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How to integrate offshore wind with an SNS energy hub

With ambitious targets to meet net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, offshore wind has a crucial role to play. But constructing individual point-to-point connections for each offshore wind farm may not provide the most efficient approach.
Network vision
Map showing potential locations for hydrogen production with electricity transmission cables for the existing and planned offshore wind fleet. Picture: Hydrogen East / Net Zero East

A recent report from the Committee on Climate Change outlined that a co-ordinated strategy that integrates offshore networks and interconnectors with onshore infrastructure and existing technologies such as hydrogen is imperative during the transition to renewable energy. Hydrogen is rapidly emerging as a cornerstone of the future zero-carbon energy system. 

While energy consumption is set to grow off the back of cheap, renewable energy, electrification is unlikely to cover all our needs. Liquid or gas fuels will still be required, especially for industrial processes, aviation and heavy vehicles: hydrogen can fill that need for a dispatchable energy vector. 

Recognising this value, the UK government has published a UK Hydrogen Strategy with a target of 5GW of hydrogen production capacity by 2030.One of the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult’s key innovation themes involves exploring how to integrate offshore wind with green hydrogen in line with the priorities of the Offshore Wind Industry Council (OWIC). 

The East of England is well positioned to transition away from oil and gas in the Southern North Sea by utilising existing infrastructure such as the Bacton Gas Terminal, to create an energy hub with huge potential to accelerate the integration of offshore wind and the production of green hydrogen. 

“Bacton is a significant gas terminal on the North Norfolk coast,” says Charlotte Farmer, analyst at Hydrogen East. “Today, it brings in upwards of 25% of the UK’s gas supplies, with connections into the Southern North Sea and two gas interconnectors to Europe. There are also existing and planned offshore wind transmission cables coming onshore nearby. It therefore represents a big opportunity in terms of potential integration of different assets.”  

As part of Hydrogen East’s ambition to stimulate the hydrogen economy in the East of England, Charlotte and the team have been working with interested parties and key stakeholders to complete a study on redeveloping Bacton as a multi-vector energy hub and analysing what assets could be deployed in unison. She asks: “Is there a way to symbiotically integrate large-scale green hydrogen production and the power coming from offshore wind farms so that they’re mutually supportive? 

“For example, if in the middle of the night an offshore wind farm is not getting the best rates for its power, could it instead be pumping that power into producing hydrogen? And likewise, if there’s a situation where there’s too much energy in the system, could we divert power that would otherwise be wasted into productive avenues, such as making hydrogen?” 

While the natural pairing for offshore wind is green hydrogen production, the oil and gas infrastructure present at the site means that there is also a good case for integrating a blue hydrogen production facility paired with carbon capture and storage in the medium term. 

“The potential to capture carbon and store it in the disused Hewitt Gas Field in the North Sea could be very effective. It is relatively near to shore and has enough capacity to support blue hydrogen production as well as carbon captured from other local emitters. 

“At the moment a blue hydrogen facility is attractive because it is comparatively much cheaper to produce blue hydrogen through steam reformation of methane than green hydrogen produced through electrolysis. However, green hydrogen backed by offshore wind is the long-term goal. In time, electrolyser costs will come down and make green hydrogen more cost-efficient.” 

Andy Holyland, Regional Innovation Manager at ORE Catapult says: “Proactive considerations to integrate offshore wind are essential to meet our decarbonisation targets. It’s going to be impossible working in sector silos. We need to find a way to integrate services across all sectors to maximise opportunity, accelerate technology, reduce costs and deliver a balanced network.  

“In order to justify and create cost effective green hydrogen at scale, we’ve got to engage with other sectors such as agriculture, transport, utilities and more. Hydrogen creates a massive opportunity but needs to collaborate with other sectors to enable cross-sector technology, policy and skills alignment.” 

The creation of a SNS Energy Hub and an integrated regional hydrogen economy in the East of England aligns perfectly with the Prime Minister’s 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. 

“We’ve got to consider different approaches,” Andy says. “We have an opportunity to create a blueprint for rural landscapes and place-based solutions which aren’t currently getting as much focus or funding compared to areas with recognised industrial clusters. 

“But it’s not just specific to the offshore energy sector,” Andy says. “It is actually much bigger in concept – and must embrace an integrated approach that includes solar, desalination, electrolysis, battery storage and many more.” 

Another opportunity being supported by Net Zero East, a Hydrogen East associated company, is the Lowestoft Power Park project. A study that is looking to develop a smart local energy system demonstrator, which combines existing, planned and potential energy assets and focuses on the fundamental relationship between supply and demand to meet local energy needs. 

“The site affords a number of energy opportunities including a wind turbine, consented flexible power generation, tidal energy potential, local battery storage opportunities and a number of rooftops that could have solar.” 

The task at hand involves creating a harmonious ecosystem for all these energy assets. The potential to create a group of assets, including production of green hydrogen, which can respond to local conditions and flexibility requirements could unlock benefits in emission reductions and reduce strain on the local electricity network.  

While focusing on near-shore potential at the moment, there are a number of important learning outcomes for offshore wind on how integration with other assets provides a valuable new avenue to explore. The challenge of achieving net-zero by 2050 means we’re going to need to deploy innovative solutions as we look to integrate nationally significant infrastructure projects with local services and infrastructure. 

“We can’t wait for a silver bullet to solve these problems,” Andy adds. “Policy and planning must be amended as we progress, but in terms of technology and infrastructure, we have to start working with what we’ve got, finding new ways of doing things alongside developing the technology and services of the future.”  

For more information, please visit hydrogeneast.uk 

See the report ‘Offshore Wind and Hydrogen: Solving the Integration Challenge’ at ore.catapult.org.uk