Scaling North Sea hydrogen production with the NZTC | SLB
Scaling North Sea hydrogen production with the NZTC

Scaling North Sea hydrogen production with the NZTC

christopher banks
by  Christopher Banks

As we look to hydrogen for its decarbonization potential, some national programs stand out. The Net Zero Technology Centre (NZTC) in Scotland is one of them. Their continuous efforts in developing energy hubs exemplify the successful scaling up of renewable hydrogen production, setting the stage for a substantial impact well beyond their country's borders. In other words, they’re well on their way in enabling the Scottish Government to achieve even their most ambitious renewable energy targets.

8 min read
North Sea

Hydrogen provides an opportunity for deep decarbonization in applications where only molecules will suffice—we simply cannot electrify everything. It's also a significant economic opportunity for businesses, regions, and countries with access to large renewable resources. To take advantage of it, however, we must drive down project costs and optimize the development of our energy systems for maximum returns.

Quote by Harriet Fox-Bekerman

So, while hydrogen is being heralded as an energy carrier destined to decarbonize many sectors and industries outside of energy itself, the NZTC in Aberdeen is at the forefront of making this a reality. Their work strives to transform renewable hydrogen production and supply into a viable and affordable option for achieving net-zero emissions sooner rather than later. Digital system modeling, for example, is helping them shift perspectives from asset-centric to holistic systems, thereby enabling the selection of the most beneficial options.

I sat down with Harriet Fox-Bekerman, Senior Project Engineer at NZTC, to discuss a very specific effort of theirs: the instrumental Energy Hubs project. This initiative is part of a broader consortium program where multiple industry leaders collaborate to actualize the vision of a hydrogen-powered future. It’s exciting to see how things move at pace when business aims align with climate action.

Question: There’s a lot of hype around zero-carbon hydrogen production and its potentially transformative role in the energy transition, but the scale-up seems challenging. The Energy Hubs project aims to support this scale-up, but can it be done at the pace required?

Harriet Fox-Bekerman: The Scottish Government is targeting an ambitious 25 GW of hydrogen production by 2045 and aims for Scotland to become a leading producer and exporter of renewable hydrogen and its derivatives. Delivering on these ambitions requires a huge (over a thousand-fold) scale-up of Scottish hydrogen production, and the Energy Hubs project is exploring how this growth may be achieved.

To produce hydrogen at the scale required, several multi-GW capacity “energy hubs” will be required. An energy hub is a specific geographic location that hosts all the facilities necessary for the large-scale production of zero-carbon hydrogen and its derivatives, such as e-fuels. Energy hubs are still at the concept stage, so the purpose of the Energy Hubs project is to develop and refine this concept in more detail.

The Energy Hubs project is one of seven projects being delivered through NZTC’s Net Zero Technology Transition Programme (NZTTP). Another project within this program—the Hydrogen Backbone Link project—has shown that exporting hydrogen from Scotland to Europe via pipeline is feasible at a 0.9 million tonnes per annum scale.

The emerging market in Europe for zero-carbon hydrogen and its derivatives presents a huge export opportunity for Scotland, but only if Scotland manages to harness its vast renewable energy resource. This means scaling up green hydrogen production and developing export infrastructure in time to meet growing demand.

Q: It’s almost fortuitous that both energy and digital transformation are happening and accelerating now. Digital is key to the energy transition, enabling you to select, test, plan, scale, simulate, and optimize development concepts. Do you agree that, by modelling different scenarios, we can support decision making and drive forward with more confidence?

HF-B: Confirming what is possible and determining the optimum concept and configuration of an energy hub is made challenging by the uncertainties and unanswered questions that emerge when considering large-scale hydrogen production in Scotland.

Each individual energy hub will be a complex system with numerous processes, interfaces, inputs, and by-products. Individual energy hubs will be integrated into the overall hydrogen energy system—an even more complex network that includes generation technologies, other hydrogen production hubs, energy storage, and the transportation of different energy vectors. This complexity means that there’s an almost infinite number of permutations and potential systems. The picture is complicated even further by uncertainty surrounding the technological and economic landscape in 2045.

Modelling is an essential tool when we need to detangle complex systems. Modelling allows us to explore different scenarios, highlight problems within a system, and investigate and compare potential solutions. When employed correctly, modelling can superpower our decision making.

Modelling has, therefore, played a key role in the initial phase of our Energy Hubs project. For example, an integrated digital model was built for the zero-carbon hydrogen energy system in Scotland in 2045. It simulated an offshore wind-to-green-hydrogen process and was used to identify viable scenarios, while eliminating systems that would be unfeasible, inappropriate, or uneconomical.

The aim of the system model was to answer:

  • How much H2 or e-fuel can be produced?
  • What is the likely levelized cost of hydrogen (LCOH) or e-fuel production when ensuring domestic demand is met?
  • How much excess H2 or e-fuel would be available for export?
  • How much higher is the cost of e-fuel production compared to H2?
  • How does an e-fuel system differ from a pure H2 system?
  • Where are the most lucrative areas for H2 infrastructure or hub development?
  • Is 25 GW of H2 production capacity by 2045 realistic, or can we be even more ambitious?

The results from this system modelling have defined the energy hub concept further and steered the project's direction in Phase 2. Modelling has helped make the economic case for energy hubs, confirming that Scotland could exceed the government’s target of 25 GW of green hydrogen production by 2045.

Q: Agreed, it’s good to leverage modelling even if only to identify early what doesn't work. A digital system model helps screen and select concepts and ensure the development of the optimal scenario. As you mentioned, the first phase of this multiphase project comprised assessment and modelling. What are the aims for Phase 2?

HF-B: Phase 1 of the Energy Hubs project comprised of multiple scopes, including resource assessment, location assessment, economic and system modelling, alternative fuels, and energy storage. And the findings confirmed that Scotland could become a major exporter of zero-carbon hydrogen and its derivatives. In fact, our energy system modelling showed that 35 GW of electrolyzer capacity could be installed across four Scottish energy hubs in 2045, thereby exceeding the country’s target.

Another key point that emerged from Phase 1 was that integrating several multi-GW scale energy hubs together as a superhub optimizes their combined performance. Meanwhile, microgrids islanded from the national grid may be a solution for locations where the national transmission system is insufficient.

The likely power supply for a multi-GW scale hydrogen or e-fuel energy hub is offshore wind, meaning the LCOH is heavily dependent on how much the cost of electricity from floating wind drops. The pace of innovation in floating offshore wind must be accelerated if Scottish zero-carbon hydrogen is to be cost competitive with other globally sourced hydrogen. Innovations in electrolyzer technologies are also needed to improve the efficiency of large-scale hydrogen production and reduce system costs.

Phase 2 looks to develop both the energy hub and superhub concepts in more detail, along with identifying the most likely configuration of an energy hub. It will also look further into system integration and how to optimize symbiotic processes. These include integrating thermal energy within energy hubs and leveraging alternative fuels and by-products (e.g., brines) to maximize their efficiency and economic viability. This phase will also support the development of crucial technologies and include the provision of direct financial support to accelerate innovative electrolyzer technologies.

Modelling will continue to play a key role during Phase 2 of the Energy Hubs project, especially when further developing the superhub concept. A set of models will be built with the objective of providing "the lowest cost Superhub to more than fill the Hydrogen Back Bone link, whilst meeting local energy demand”.

Q: Energy projects are complex and making informed decisions requires that we think beyond the individual asset, facility, field, or discipline. The wider context of integration and collaboration is an integral part of this, so it’s great to see this program completed by a consortium—especially in a traditionally dog-eat-dog market like ours.

HF-B: Indeed, we need to draw from multiple disciplines and involve large and varied groups of stakeholders. The long-term success of energy transition projects relies on cooperation and active support from both the government and multiple other organizations across the private and public sectors.

Consortiums are important not only because they enable resources to be combined—thereby increasing the impact of public money—but also because they bring together a wide range of expertise, experience, and insight. Involving others in the early stages of transition projects increases the likelihood that multiple stakeholders' interests are adequately represented from the start. The right partners in a consortium add huge value to a project, with the results often including better decision making, wider thinking, and more creative solutions.

Energy hubs are bold and ambitious, and there are many challenges to overcome before the concept can become a reality. It’s no surprise then that the Energy Hubs project, like all projects within the NZTTP, is built on collaboration: The project is supported by both government and industry funding, while tapping into the expertise and insights of the consortium partners has been essential to the project’s success so far.

Q: So, it’s about bringing value where you can and embracing diverse perspectives and skill sets. After all, it's in everyone’s interest to transition in a just way. Can the North Sea basin lead the transition? We’ve been an energy powerhouse since the mid-1970s, but it’s now a very mature basin with declining production. Can we have a North Sea renaissance with low-carbon energy production?

HF-B: The North Sea region has a vast renewable energy resource and carbon storage potential. The International Energy Agency (IEA) described the North Sea as a “potential powerhouse for low-emission hydrogen” and estimates that projects linked to the North Sea could enable the production of close to 3 million tonnes per year by 2030. This estimate is based on planned projects in the IEA’s hydrogen production projects database and includes both green renewable hydrogen production and blue hydrogen utilizing carbon storage in the North Sea region.

Scotland has a significant opportunity to produce green hydrogen, if it can leverage its renewable resources in the North Sea. The energy system model developed in Phase 1 was based on a 2045 scenario for Scotland and assumed that all ScotWind projects will be built and operational. The model also included other offshore wind projects that are currently operational or in development. In total, this represented 37 GW of installed capacity. The model confirmed that there is abundant renewable resource in the Scottish North Sea to oversupply Scotland with both electricity and hydrogen. However, it is the prediction and control of system costs that dictates the economic viability of any wind-to-hydrogen system.

Unlocking the full potential of green hydrogen production in Scotland will require significant investment, technological innovation, and infrastructure development. The challenges are considerable, yet the rewards are even greater.


Christopher Banks

Geoscience and New Energy Consultant

Chris Banks has a passion for helping customers plan and execute their decarbonization strategies. With 18 years of experience in both energy industry and regulation, Chris has always championed the application of digital tools for decision making. He’s currently using digital modeling to optimize wind to green hydrogen hubs in Scotland and derisk CCS projects in Europe. Chris has a PhD in Geoscience and MSc in Sustainable Energy Solutions.

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