In this Transition Talk, we will dive into the viability of using hydrogen in aviation. To talk us through this, Anders Lorenzen, writing for Fuel Oil News, spoke to Matt Hindle, Head of Net Zero at Wales and West Utilities (WWU), who is actively working on the inclusion of hydrogen in its aviation fleet. The conversation was framed around a report released by WWU – Hydrogen in Aviation – that details the demand for hydrogen across the aviation supply chain. It looks at the potential to use hydrogen for future flights and at airports, and its role in Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) from 2023 to 2050 and sets out their belief that hydrogen will play a key role in enabling UK aviation to achieve its net zero carbon commitment by 2050.
The study assesses the increasing role that hydrogen will play in the future of aviation across South Wales and South West England.
Drawing on the conclusions in the report, Hindle explained how WWU sees hydrogen in aviation as playing a key role in achieving net zero. Looking at future demands, and based on their thinking and research, he considers that there will be strong potential for hydrogen, in the future, for their aviation fleets – both in the sector and also to produce aviation fuels. He acknowledged that there is still a lot of uncertainty around volumes, but explained that “as we develop our infrastructure, we need to take account of the potential scale of the future demands, and we need to make sure we future proof our network developments and our hydrogen transition plans.”
The report sets out that, until around 2035 to 2040, depending on the adoption scenario, they expect the direct demand for hydrogen to be much lower – driven by early adoption of the first generation of hydrogen fuel cell aircraft of modest size and range, using in the early years a cautious amount of hydrogen. At these annual demand levels (up to around 2,000 tonnes per year), local hydrogen production is plausible using, initially, locally generated, renewable electricity and then grid-supplied power.
The hydrogen standards
This brings us nicely to the critical point of how the hydrogen is produced. To have an impact on net zero targets it would need to be produced with the lowest emissions. Currently, there are three different standards for producing hydrogen: green hydrogen, blue hydrogen and grey hydrogen. Green hydrogen is produced using electricity from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Blue hydrogen is produced using conventional fossil fuels coal, oil and gas, but with the added carbon reduction benefits of capturing and storing CO2 emissions through the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. However, for now this must be discounted as there are not enough CCS projects operationally for this to be viable, yet. Grey hydrogen is hydrogen produced using fossil fuels such as natural gas or coal but without any sequestration technologies. As things currently stand, 95% of global hydrogen production is via the grey hydrogen method.
On this point, Hindle said that, as they’re in the early stages, they’re expecting to see hydrogen from a range of sources, with involvement in the network infrastructure rather than producing the hydrogen. “As an organisation, we focus on developing a hydrogen aviation network across Wales and the Southwest which should be connected to wider plans for hydrogen across the UK.”
He tossed the hydrogen source coin back to the UK government adding that, based on developing that network, the UK government’s commitments around hydrogen production are critical to how they will develop that network. “We need to know where that hydrogen is going to come from. We expect that there will be a range of sources. We expect it will be green hydrogen from excess renewables, we expect it to be blue hydrogen through reclamation of restatements, carbon capture, and potentially other technologies like hydrogen from nuclear sources as well. What’s critical for decarbonisation is that it will need to meet the government’s low carbon hydrogen standard, so that it’s demonstrably providing emission savings and making a positive difference from a climate change aspect,” he explained to Anders, for Fuel Oil News.
I wanted to press Hindle further on how they ensure that the hydrogen that is produced is as low carbon as possible.
He was keen to stress that it was, of course, critical that as much as possible of the hydrogen was produced from low carbon sources, but explained it will depend on a range of factors; where the production is coming from and where it is going to be used: ”If we’ve got hydrogen produced according to the low carbon hydrogen standard, that is going to produce very, very significant savings against mitigated fossil fuels such as kerosene today,” he clarified. He agreed with the notion of this issue but stressed that policy is needed to guarantee that everyone cites genuine emission savings.
It is clear that infrastructure and the ability to scale will be critical to success, and Hindle was keen to underline the importance of getting the relevant infrastructure in place. “We will need to massively expand low carbon hydrogen production for a range of uses and develop hydrogen strategies to a level where hydrogen potentially meets about 30% of energy demand across the economy by 2050,” he said.
Hindle suggests that the biggest factor in achieving this is for hydrogen to be produced at scale, first of all, in order to meet the government’s 10 gigawatts (GW) by 2030 target “and then continue to build from there”. He expressed confidence in the government driving this forward due to the number of developers with active projects: “We’re confident that the right policy will emerge for that target to remain on track.”
Wales could be a major green hydrogen player
Staying on the issue of infrastructure, how does WWU envisage the hydrogen will get to where it is needed?
“The pipeline and transportation are critical, because the potential production sites aren’t necessarily located near the demand (airports),” Hindle stressed.
He referred to the report, explaining that their research had found Wales has the opportunity to be a net exporter of hydrogen. Because of its significant energy infrastructure potential, such as offshore wind projects in the Celtic Sea, Wales could position itself as a major green hydrogen producer in the UK, he added, arguing there is a case for modelling the hydrogen pipeline network on the natural gas network.
“I think we’re going to need hydrogen pipelines, very similar to the natural gas network that we have today. We should be aiming for an integrated system which will, ultimately, be able to take hydrogen from a range of sources, deliver it to a range of users, and create a market that can deliver the best value for customers,” he said.
Local case studies
So, is this all just hot talk or are there any notable local projects to date to highlight?
Hindle named Pembrokeshire as a good example to highlight due to the industrial demands in the county and its potential as a sustainable aviation fuel developer.
“We are currently looking at developing a hydrogen pipeline there. We believe that, with the right support, particularly on the hydrogen production side, we can have that infrastructure in place by 2032,” Hindle told Fuel Oil News.
“That would then further support the goal of decarbonising the South Wales industrial cluster, saving emissions from a range of industries and giving opportunities to sustainable aviation fuel production,” he explained, continuing: “But obviously, we don’t want to stop there; We want to continue that development and open up the potential to supply airports directly, we are thinking Cardiff, Bristol airport and RM.”
Is there a limit?
So what use cases are we potentially looking at? Even passenger airlines?
“In our report, we looked at a whole range of potential demands –planes for transporting passengers as well as goods,” Hindle shared, regarding the potential use case for hydrogen-produced aviation fuel. He added that WWU will continue to work closely with industry, as well as governments, to determine how big a role these will play, so that the right infrastructure plans can be put in place to support those goals.
The global perspective and leaders
With hydrogen-produced aviation still in its infancy, does WWU see itself as a world leader in this and have they watched, and taken inspiration from, other global projects?
Hindle explained, with passion, that the South West (of the UK) has a genuine leadership role and strong position when it comes to scaling up hydrogen fuels within the aerospace sector, highlighting how Airbus, the French aerospace company and the world’s largest commercial aircraft producer, has made Filton, Bristol its Zero Emission Development Centre (ZEDC) for hydrogen technologies.
“I think the UK, as a whole, is one of the leading areas for hydrogen development with real strength in the renewables sector,” Hindle shared.. However, he did caution that there’s a danger that the UK is falling behind when compared to other European countries. He referred to a report, in September last year, from the Energy Networks Association warning that the UK is slipping down the International Hydrogen Progress Index. “We’ve got some real strengths to build on here, but there is a danger we’re falling behind because of the speed at which hydrogen is now moving around the world,” he added, referring to the report’s conclusion.
To conclude our conversation, I wanted to get a view on the overall transition to net zero and what needs to happen next.
First, Hindle wanted to acknowledge that there will be impacts from the transition for consumers around issues such as heating, underlining the need for this to be recognised and managed in order for us to “have a transition to net zero that protects the most vulnerable in society.”
“Moving forward we need a lot of focus on how we’re going to make that transition work for consumers, easing the transition in the heating sector, as well as in other areas.
“We’ve got to take that view across the whole system and make sure we’ve got viable and cost-effective solutions for every customer,” he added.
Hindle was also keen to underline that, even though the report was produced around the role of hydrogen in aviation, he does not want to stop there, wanting, instead, to look at the overall hydrogen infrastructure. He put out an open invitation to other organisations: “We’re always interested in collaborating and working with other organisations and setting up partnerships which can drive innovation forward.”
Matt Hindle was speaking to Anders Lorenzen.
Danish-born Anders Lorenzen is a freelance writer and the founder of Greener Life, a greener world.
He is a regular contributor to FON, looking broadly at global and UK trends that signal the UK’s energy transition pathway.
Anders has a strong passion for action on climate change and the green energy transition and has contributed to various outlets on the topics of lifestyle, politics, climate change, energy and broad environmental as well as sustainability issues. He is a keen runner and lives in London with his partner and daughter.