Scotland has enormous renewable energy potential – with some of the fastest wind speeds in Europe. But the UK’s ‘weak’ and ‘creaking’ National Grid is a major barrier. The UK-wide National Grid was privatised under Margaret Thatcher and it has been starved of investment. As a result, it cannot connect many more renewable electricity projects from Scotland for years, perhaps decades to come.
Due to the lack of capacity, renewable producers in Scotland are also charged ten times the amount paid by English producers to connect to the grid. Renewable producers are therefore looking for another way to make the most of Scotland’s energy potential. They can use power – wind, solar or tidal – to split water atoms and make green hydrogen, a powerful source of energy.
Fossil fuels can also be used to create hydrogen and the Acorn project in Aberdeen aims to use carbon in this process. If funded and successful, this will mean the oil and gas sector can produce “blue hydrogen”, which is cleaner than the dirty, grey hydrogen that the sector currently creates.
But how can all of this hydrogen made in Scotland be moved to somewhere that wants to buy it? The solution is a pipeline to Germany. That would mean Scotland could make the most of its energy potential, rather than being held back by a UK with other priorities – such as investing billions into expensive and outdated nuclear power.
Making the “Hydrogen Backbone Link” a reality will take investment and an ability to build partnerships with industry. As an independent country, Scotland would be in a position to carry this out immediately – several European countries are already building hydrogen pipelines. As it is, the Scottish Government can only invest in feasibility studies and plans as it is Westminster that holds the purse strings.
The Hydrogen Backbone Link
Last week, Aberdeen’s Net Zero Technology Centre (NZTC), chaired by BP’s former UK head Peter Mather, proposed a new pipeline that would carry hydrogen from Scotland to Europe. The Hydrogen Backbone Link would transport hydrogen made by electricity from Scotland’s growing fleet of offshore wind farms to Germany.
The report asserts: “Reusing existing pipeline assets to export hydrogen will accelerate the delivery of a hydrogen network as well as reducing CO2 emissions from pipeline decommissioning and from sustainable transport of hydrogen. This project will sustain and create new jobs, and play a key role in determining how to develop and operate an export pipeline which it is estimated could support up to 800 Scottish jobs and contribute toward establishing a hydrogen economy in Scotland that is estimated could support up to 100,000 jobs.”
By 2030, Europe is expected to import over 300 terawatt-hours of hydrogen and this is projected to climb to 1000 terawatt-hours by 2050.
Scotland ‘among the best placed’ for renewable future
The country has some of the strongest wind speeds in Europe — helping it become one of the world’s largest offshore wind markets.
It is looking at turning that strength into a new export opportunity by way of the clean-burning gas on which many green hopes are pinned: hydrogen.”
Roy Stenhouse, chief impact officer at NZTC, said: “Everyone is looking for a home for their hydrogen (...) Right now they’re all struggling. I think you could unlock the whole hydrogen economy.”
Stenhouse also said the Hydrogen Backbone Link would address the mismatch between Scotland’s renewable potential and the capacity of the UK’s National Grid: “In some cases, the amount of energy available compared to the cable capacity . . . it’s not possible.”
Making the HBL a reality will take investment
But turning this plan into a reality will take investment. The total cost of the project is estimated at £2.7bn. The Hydrogen Backbone Link has attracted early-stage investment from major players in the energy industry like Shell and EnQuest, with the Scottish Government also contributing to its £3.2mn development budget up to 2025.
Analysis of the transportation costs and rates of return, assuming the pipeline runs at 90 per cent capacity, would ensure that the pipeline would be competitive in cost with hydrogen sources from other regions like Chile, Canada and the Middle East, even if the production costs in those countries were lower.
Europe forges ahead
Europe is taking the lead globally with hydrogen pipelines planned both on and offshore, according to a recent report by RystadEnergy. The H2Med Barcelona-Marseille subsea hydrogen pipeline is budgeted to cost around $2.1 billion for a stretch of 450 km and it was recently announced that it will be extended to Germany too. Norway is also scoping a hydrogen connection to Germany, the energy analyst reported.
The UK government is falling behind on energy
The UK’s energy regulation has lagged behind other sectors: domestic and business consumers pay amongst the highest rates in the world. Households were made to absorb the cost of 29 suppliers going bust due to poor oversight.
Recently the UK Government has also been criticised for failing the wind power sector. Sweden’s Vattenfall said in July it could no longer build at the price the UK guarantees for wind, and it has suspended work on a major site in Norfolk. This week, the UK Government will offer new contracts for difference but this may not be enough to incentivise more development.
The UK Government has also failed repeatedly to provide the market framework that will be needed to make the construction of Scotland’s pumped storage hydro facilities a reality. Unfortunately, although the Scottish Government has granted planning permission, it can’t do anything about the conditions set by the UK Government.
An independent Scotland in Europe would be free to invest in and partner with other countries as climate-conscious governments work together to transition to renewable energy.
That can’t happen soon enough – Scotland does not want to sit on its hands and watch as another huge energy windfall is squandered by an incompetent and uninterested UK Government.