Hydrogen has a promising future, but how can ports best exploit its potential?


By Keir Gravil, Business Manager (Commercial Marine) at Frazer Nash Consultancy

One of the many challenges and opportunities arising from the scramble to decarbonise is that there are many methods available to us to achieve net zero.

The complexity is often in making the right decisions at the right time and choosing the correct path to travel. Many organisations are enthusiastic in their ambition to head towards a less polluted world, but they are often cautious to start down a path that could be the wrong one. 

Indeed, the irony of decarbonisation is that the paths that lead to it are often hazy and gazing into a future of net zero technology is difficult.

What technologies do we use? What is the correct solution, and when should we implement it?

All the answers to these questions are unique to each organisation, and here at Frazer-Nash we’ve been giving them a lot of thought.

Hydrogen as a solution to decarbonisation

To meet 2050 targets for decarbonisation, up to 25% of our energy will come from green hydrogen (i.e. hydrogen that has been created using renewable sources of energy).

One thing we have been investigating here at Frazer-Nash is the potential for hydrogen to play a big part in the decarbonisation of our economy. We believe it is a powerful and flexible tool in our arsenal to combat climate change.

Indeed, with Frazer-Nash’s systems approach to solving complex problems, we’ve been asking ourselves how hydrogen can be, and should be used to reduce emissions from ports and their wider supply chains.

The first step in understanding the right net zero path to choose is to understand what a port is for. Ports are the way our economy links itself to the world, importing and exporting millions of tonnes of goods each year and connecting us to the global economy.

Technologies that enable ports to achieve net zero status need to make the job of a port easier and benefit their ability to connect our economies to the rest of the world. 

Given ports are some of the most internationally connected sites in the country, they have opportunities to enable the hydrogen economy to take root and grow, allowing them to achieve net zero status and enhance their operations.

Indeed, ports have the potential to be a ‘hydrogen economy enabler’ linking users and exporters to producers and the wider supply chain, or even enabling other industries (such as non-renewable offshore energy) to transition to net zero.

Frazer-Nash has been investigating the benefits of hydrogen in the ports area, supporting Western Isles Council on the feasibility of being a hydrogen hub. 

Unlike other industries, many ports have the real estate and space to be able to develop hydrogen successfully. Not only this, but the connections to the supply chain and wider hinterland are already there.

Hydrogen liquefaction and regassification, ammonia handling and storage, electricity generation from hydrogen sources, all these ideas and possibilities are primed to be exploited in the ports and harbours sector. 

Overcoming barriers to development and implementation

However even though hydrogen is a very promising solution to our emissions problems, there are barriers to its development.

Hydrogen infrastructure can be expensive, and its development within ports can often be limited to ‘easy wins’ owing to the potential cost of developing hydrogen infrastructure. Therefore, government policies that invest in areas such as hydrogen handling and transportation infrastructure are key to reduce the risks in travelling down the hydrogen path. 

From a ports perspective, the most important question is what investments make sense now and what make sense in the future?

To answer this question is not easy, but we have a lot of experience helping people to start down the road by guiding their thinking.

From the development of viable technologies that solve existing problems, through to thinking of potential new problems that will need solving, uncertainty is not the insurmountable challenge it is often thought to be.

Hydrogen storage, material embrittlement, safety perspectives, logistics modelling and transportation are all areas where we’ve been providing support and fresh thinking. Equally as important is the question who can I help and how can I enable others to start down the same path?

Opportunities to develop technology are more likely to succeed when we’re all working together. Ports working as enablers for other industries to decarbonise will provide synergies that reduce the costs and risks associated with hydrogen infrastructure.

If ports can enable energy companies to grow their hydrogen technologies, the path to the hydrogen economy becomes a lot easier. Ultimately, support from central government is key.

Without major policy shifts to focus on supporting a nationwide hydrogen-based economy, it is likely that hydrogen will remain a local affair confined to those areas with the relatively niche demands for hydrogen rather than a powerful national solution to our decarbonisation plans. Only time will tell where we’ll end up. 

Summary – why hydrogen is a good solution

So why is hydrogen a good option for ports to explore further?

  1. Hydrogen is flexible, it can be used as a fuel for ship propulsion, but it can also be distributed around a port and the port’s hinterland to benefit local industry and the wider national energy mix.
  2. Ports have potential to act as hydrogen hubs and processing areas, especially for liquefaction and regassification of hydrogen or its processing from compounds such as Ammonia or Methane. 
  3. There is potential for hydrogen to generate a surplus of energy, which can be exported and improve energy security for the UK.  
  4. The flexibility of hydrogen means that collaboration is possible, reducing the risks and pitfalls of technology development.
  5. With government investment, hydrogen can be a nationwide solution to the problems facing sustainability targets and be a valuable part of our energy mix.

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