Scottish 'Green Freeports' announced
After an apparent early leak to the press by the UK Government which prompted charges of 'a betrayal of trust' from 'The National', the result of the bidding for Green Freeport status was announced on 13 January during UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's visit to Scotland.
The winners were Inverness and Cromarty Firth and the Firth of Forth, a result which aroused enormous anger from supporters of the losing bid by the North East Scotland Freeport centered on Aberdeen and Peterhead (the other losers were Orkney and the Firth of Clyde).
The Scottish Green Party, currently sharing power in government with the SNP, is opposed in principle to freeports of any colour, seeing them as undeserved favours to big international corporations and an incitement to 'greenwashing' and commercial crime.
Environmental costs of freeports
The Cromarty Firth will become a Green Freeport
Image 'Daily Business'
Is Hydrogen the Fuel of the Future?
In March 2022 Higland Council issued a press release announcing that the then leader of the council, Margaret Davidson, had signed a 'memoranding of understanding' with the Managing Director of infrastructure company H2Green to co-operate in setting up a hydrogen hub in the highlands, with the council putting up £100,000 to support initial work on the project. The money comes from the £2m investment funds approved at their budget meeting the previous week 'to progress the local authority’s net zero ambitions, invest in green energy and provide long-lasting benefits to Highland communities'.
Apart from these generalities, there was not much information about what a hydrogen hub was or how it might be used. Before signing the agreement with Highland Council, in December 2021 H2Green had signed a deal with SGN Commercial Services (formerly Scotia Gas Networks) 'to develop a major green hydrogen production, storage, and distribution facility in Inverness.' This - presumably the hydrogen hub envisaged in the Council agreement, will be built on SGN's former gasholder site near the railway on the Longman Industrial Estate, and 'will provide green hydrogen directly to large volume anchor customers, including rail, bus, and heavy goods vehicles.' This would require setting up an electrolysis plant to produce 'green' hydrogen, and storage and fuelling facilities. The press release includes favourable comment from rail rolling stock owner Eversholt Rail, and H2Green presumably hopes that the possibility currently being discussed of running hydrogen trains on the Far North and Kyle lines comes to fruition, which would leave the Inverness hub ideally placed as the fuelling base.
Before considering national (UK and Scottish) hydrogen policies, and the structures and organisations being set up to implement them, it is worth looking briefly at how hydrogen is made and can be used, and why it is currently a focus in energy discussions.
Types of hydrogen and how it is made
Hydrogen is commonly described as grey, blue or green.
- 'Grey' (dirty) hydrogen is made from natural gas, with uncontrolled emission of carbon dioxide.
- 'Blue' hydrogen is also made from natural gas, but in conjunction with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology to minimise emissions.
- 'Green' hydrogen is extracted from water by electrolysis , but requires large amounts of readily available renewable electricity.
'Hydrogen has not taken off before now because it takes more energy to split water into hydrogen than you get from the resulting hydrogen. But clean and plentiful energy sources, such as wind and tidal power, can be harnessed to make it.'
Zero waste Scotland
What can hydrogen be used for?
The main use envisaged is as a transport fuel for trains, long distance road haulage and motor vehicles generally, including buses, trucks, construction equipment and cars. Hydrogen can be used in two ways
1. in a fuel cell which generates electricity to drive an electric motor, as in a battery-powered electric vehicle
2. in a modified internal combustion engine similar to a petrol or natural gas engine, emitting no carbon, but some nitrous oxides (Nox) and possibly particulates from lubricating oil.
A number of car manufacturers are developing both fuel cell and combustion hydrogen cars (the latter said to be favoured by 'rev-heads' because they make a noise), amid discussion about the relative efficiency and economy of both hydrogen types and already well established battery-electric cars. JCB has developed a hydrogen combustion engine and a mobile refuelling system for its loaders and excavators, and several companies are developing hydrogen HGVs. Aberdeen has a fleet of fuel cell hydrogen buses, and a hydrogen bus was trialled in and around Inverness in October and November 2021, in a partnership between HITRANS, Protium Energy, Opportunity Cromarty Firth, Stagecoach and hydrogen infrastructure company Element 2. Hydrogen-powered trains are in service in Germany, fuel cell hydrogen trains are being tested on the Bo'ness and Kinneil heritage rail line near Linlithgow and being considered for the Thurso and Kyle lines in the Highlands which would be too expensive to electrify.
The possibility of burning hydrogen mixed with, or as an alternative to, natural gas in domestic central heating boilers is currently highly controversial, but the use of waste heat from hydrogen production for district heating schemes is an interesting alternative for domestic heating.
National hydrogen policies and structure
Both the UK and Scottish Governments have a Strategy or Policy and an Action Plan.
Hydrogen strategy August 2021 upd Dec 2022
Hydrogen sector development action plan (PDF) 2022
Hydrogen policy statement December 2020
Hydrogen action plan (updated) December 2022
With regard to structure, reference is made to a number of industrial 'clusters', involved in hydrogen production and CCS, but some of these at least seem to be groups of commercial companies acting as pressure groups rather than part of any formal structure. The Scottish cluster is built around the Acorn CCS project at St Fergus (see below). On a different scale there are actual or potential hydrogen 'hubs' - regional or local centres of hydrogen production, storage, distribution and use. The updated Scottish Hydrogen Action Plan (December 2022) refers to the 'potential location' of regional hydrogen hubs in Scotland as
Shetland, Orkney, Western Isles, Cromarty Firth, Aberdeen and North East, Dundee, Fife, Grangemouth, Glasgow, Ayrshire, Scottish Borders, Dumfriess and Galloway, and Argyll / islands.
On the Cromarty Firth near Invergordon the North of Scotland Hydrogen Programme
'aims to develop a state-of-the-art hub to produce, store and distribute renewable hydrogen to the local area, the UK and Europe. Ideally located close to large-scale renewable resources, there is a driving ambition for the region to become a hydrogen economy, with huge local demand for renewable hydrogen from distilleries, industry, transport and domestic applications.'
The programme originated in a partnership between Scottish Power and CCS specialists Storegga to produce green hydrogen as a carbon-free energy source for a number of East Ross distilleries, with suggested scope for expansion into areas such as transport fuelling and district heating. It was established through Opportunity Cromarty Firth and brings together partners who share ambitions for the region’s renewable, low carbon future. It is hoped the hub will produce, store and distribute green hydrogen at scale to the region, Scotland, other parts of the UK and Europe.
How, or if, this project relates to H2Green's Inverness hub project supported by Highland Council with which we started, is not clear.
Other Scottish hydrogen developments
Carbon Capture and Storage - The Acorn Project, St Fergus
Located at the Shell gas terminal near Peterhead, the Acorn Project is a partnership between Storegga, Shell UK, Harbour Energy and North Sea Midstream Partners, and is described as
'a critical element of the Scottish Cluster, created to unite communities, industries and businesses to deliver the low carbon technologies that will support Scotland, the UK and Europe to meet net zero goals. The Scottish Cluster will create low carbon jobs while sustaining vital industries where it is hard to reduce emissions and provide an economic path to net zero for Scotland and the UK.'
The project will produce 'blue' hydrogen from natural gas, and transport and store carbon dioxide from its own and other companies' operations in former natural gas reservoirs under the North Sea.
The Scottish Cluster lost out to two English groups in competition for UK Government support for the development of CCS technology, but was named as reserve.
Domestic heating - the Fife H100 Project
A partnership between gas distributor SGN and Fife Council, Fife H100 is a pilot project to replace natural gas with hydrogen for domestic heating. In the first phase 300 homes in Buckhaven and Denbeath will be converted, with householders being offered a free hydrogen boiler and £1000 as inducements to take part in the trial. 'Green' hydrogen will be produced at the Fife Energy Park by a dedicated electrolysis plant powered by a nearby offshore wind turbine. Construction began in 2022, and the network will be demonstrated in 2023 and go live from 2024 to 2027.
However, doubt has been cast on the likely success of the project, as construction work has been delayed and take-up by households has been slow. Over-optimistic promotion of the project has been attributed to the desire of the gas industry to maintain its place in the UK's energy economy.
Another interesting earlier project, outside Scotland, was H21 Leeds City Gate, a large scale feasibility study into replacing natural gas with hydrogen in the gas network of a large city, and part of a series of projects and studies of the potential for hydrogen use led by Northern Gas Networks and funded by Ofgem. Its report, published in July 2016
'confirmed that conversion of the UK gas network to 100% hydrogen was both technically possible and could be delivered at a realistic cost.'
Both these projects are interesting in the light of an ongoing difference of opinion between the UK Government and many scientists over the viability of using hydrogen as a substitute for natural gas for domestic heating. In a Guardian interview in 2020 Richard Lowes of the University of Exeter Energy Policy Group, who has researched the issue in detail, said 'Hydrogen is certainly not a silver bullet', and suggested the future of domestic heating was more likely to lie with heat pumps and better insulation. In an October 2022 article about the difference of opinion on the 'Euractiv' website, new UK Energy Secretart Jacob Rees-Mogg is quoted as telling the House of Commons 'I think hydrogen is ultimately the silver bullet'.
In a 2022 interview Jan Rosenow, Europe director at the Regulatory Assistance Project, an energy thinktank, and co-author of a study of 32 relevant scientific papers, said there were too many technical difficulties to overcome to make hydrogen a viable and economic low-carbon heating fuel.
'Using hydrogen for heating may sound attractive at first glance. However, all of the independent research on this topic comes to the same conclusion: heating with hydrogen is a lot less efficient and more expensive than alternatives such as heat pumps, district heating and solar thermal'.
It has been calculated that in the UK, heating homes with green hydrogen would use approximately six times more renewable electricity than heat pumps.
Another possibility for domestic heating is the use of waste heat from hydrogen production by electrolysis for district heating schemes. Other heat sources discussed for district heating are large central heat pumps and 'waste-to-energy' incinerators (would require CCS to be low carbon). Large hydrogen boilers don't seem to be considered.
Hydrogen power stations?
Is there any future for hydrogen as a fuel for generating electricity? It would make no sense to use hydrogen generated by electrolysis, but blue hydrogen from natural gas ('steam methane reforming' with CCS) has been considered. Gas turbines used for natural gas would have to be modified or replaced, but the main problem is seen as ensuring an adequate supply of hydrogen. The issue is explored by Drax, the Yorkshire power station controversially currently fuelled by wood pellets.
Opportunity Cromarty Firth and green freeports
In earlier discussion of the North of Scotland Hydrogen Programme we mentioned the organisation Opportunity Cromarty Firth, a consortium of companies bidding for 'green freeport' staus for the Cromarty Firth. Partners include Port of Cromarty Firth, Global Energy Group, Port of Inverness and The Highland Council, energy and infrastructure companies and academic and voluntary bodies. Freeport status is intended to promote economic activity by enabling goods to be imported free of tariffs, and offering other inducements such as lower property taxes and National Insurance rates. Eight freeports have been set up in England (including one inland at East Midlands Airport), and two will be chosen in Scotland. The other bidders are: North East Scotland, Orkney, and the firths of Forth and Clyde.
There have been some political implications. The SNP-led Scottish Government was initially unhappy with the UK proposal, but agreed after being offered equal say in selecting the sites, fair funding and a commitment to decarbonisation. The Scottish Greens disagree with the freeport concept and have distanced themselves from the venture, saying freeports give unjustified tax breaks to multinational companies, enable 'greenwashing' and are linked to crime, money laundering, smuggling, and low wages.
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