Government rubbishes hydrogen in bid to boost new nuclear power

Doug Parr, Chief Science Officer for Greenpeace, exposes how the Government is using unreasonably pessimistic assumptions about storing renewable energy to bolster the case for its scenarios which involve large amounts of nuclear power and fossil generation with carbon capture and storage

How is UK government continuing to justify continued emphasis on nuclear power development when the cost of renewables has fallen so far? The answer is about the weather – government will point out (although this will not be a shock to most people, or renewables energy experts) that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. In other words, what can manage the gaps in electricity supply when there isn’t enough solar or wind power? We can max out on electrical connection to other countries, demand response and batteries and there’s still a gap. So to fill that ‘gap’ we need some form of long term storage for renewable power.

Enter hydrogen as the storage fuel that could fill the gap[1].

Hydrogen produced from renewable power (known commonly as ‘green hydrogen’) is producing a lot of excitement in lots of countries. Notably Germany is planning €7bn spending[2] to expand it, Sweden have plans to use green hydrogen for steel production rather than power system balancing[3], there are even massive plans in Australia as it seeks to diversify from fossil fuels[4], and major plans from the EU[5].

In UK there is some enthusiasm but it’s mixed in with more vigorous support for hydrogen derived from fossil gas. That said, hydrogen became a mainstay of Climate Change Committee modelling and the scenarios from their 6th Carbon Budget report[6], producing 90TWh hydrogen (not just from renewables), or about one third the energy of the current electricity system by 2035 in their ‘balanced’ scenario. CCC scenarios overall show a mix of between 5GW and 10GW nuclear capacity by 2050.

Note that the 5GW level of nuclear would mean no additional capacity is required, assuming Hinkley Point C eventually works, and Sizewell B gets life extension. In other words, in 3 of the 5 CCC scenarios no more nuclear capacity is required other than that under construction or already built. Obviously it is possible to imagine scenarios with less nuclear, but that’s what UK government’s official adviser says.

However, that’s not the perspective of UK government, as informed by their Modelling 2050 study[7], released 2 days before Christmas last year. This suggests more nuclear is required, and informed Secretary of State Kwasi Kwarteng at Commons select committee hearing[8] in saying

“nuclear power is essential. We have done all the modelling. We need what is called firm or dispatchable power in order to balance the system …. The sun is not always shining for solar power generation; nor is the wind always blowing …About 15% of power generation will probably come from this firm power, and nuclear power baseload is the most effective non-carbon source of that power.”

And went on to say that the cost of 100% renewables systems was very high.

However, a look at the modelling study suggests that with a burgeoning hydrogen sector, the cost difference between ‘high nuclear’ and ‘low nuclear’ scenarios is low to non-existent, because the ‘firm power’ that Mr Kwarteng wants is provided by the stored hydrogen. So the Modelling 2050 study does not require nuclear in the way he implies.

Further, the Modelling 2050 study seems weighted against the uptake of hydrogen to provide this ‘balancing’ service to the grid. The modelled assumption on hydrogen availability and price, which is the basis of the scenarios explored, is found on p6, where it says:

“the main part of the paper we consider a scenario where the total amount of hydrogen-fired generation is constrained to 20 TWh or less, and hydrogen is twice as expensive as natural gas”

In footnote 6 on that page we discover that:

“overall costs of the necessary hydrogen infrastructure are included in our assessment of the hydrogen price. Our central gas price assumption in 2050 is 19.5£/MWh (2012 prices). In our core hydrogen scenario (hydrogen price = 2x gas price) this equates to a hydrogen price of approximately 39 £/MWh [c. 1.2 £/Kg in 2020 prices]” (emphasis added)

Thus the viability of green hydrogen to contribute to a very high renewables system is constrained by 2 assumptions of only 20TWh being available in 2050, and the cost being £1.2/kg in 2020 prices (or $1.68/kg at today’s exchange rate)

These 2 critical assumptions contrast sharply with Climate Change Committee where their central ‘balanced pathway’ scenario reaches nearly 100TWh by 2050[9], with other scenarios going higher still.

Meanwhile cost assumptions from the Head of BloombergNEF, the leading analysts in this space, say[10]

“By 2050, therefore, extrapolating long-standing trends in renewable power and electrolyzer costs….BloombergNEF estimates that green hydrogen will be available at between $0.8 and $1.0 per kilo. I would not be surprised to see it go below that.”









[9] P.152, Fig 3.5c


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4 thoughts on “Government rubbishes hydrogen in bid to boost new nuclear power”

  1. “…hydrogen became a mainstay of Climate Change Committee modelling and the scenarios from their 6th Carbon Budget…”

    But they never quite spell out the mind-numbing complexity of getting 635 TWh per year, of 24/7/365, despatchable electricity from intermittent WASPPs. More to the point, they don’t calculate the horrendous capital cost, including the cost of fuel, to get there.

    Long story, short: It’s £31.83 billion per year, forever and that cost (which is not the eventual total cost) will ‘insinuate’ £1,145 into the energy bills of every UK household. By contrast, the figures for Rolls-Royce advanced NPPs are £8.40 billion and £303.00.

    And Yes! WASPPs need lots of fuel! 3.8 million tonnes per year of green hydrogen to power lots of backup CCGTs. But now, the LCOE of WASPPs, can’t shunt the cost of backup to one side as it does now. The cost of every kg of hydrogen fuel and the cost of the overbuild of WASPPs and the cost of backup storage and infrastructure is lumped – fairly and squarely – on every MWh of WASPP-generated, despatchable electricity.

    Unfortunately for these ridiculous technologies, advanced NPPs need none of these ‘trimmings’. Build a NPP and get unadulterated, 24/7/365 electricity for 60/80 years. Rolls-Royce will be in production by 2030 and will be sucking commercial investment away from WASPPs within a year or two. WASPPs built in the next 10 years will be the last we see of them:

    Search for: 635-twh-year-of-despatchable-electricity

  2. I think you are making a lot of assumptions here. A 100% RE system will be built to the most efficient criteria, not the least efficient, which is precisely a problem with the Government’s study that Doug Parr discusses. This is besides the slight issue that these advanced nuclear powerplant have not been built as you describe them.

  3. Weather-dependent energy exhibits large gaps in available energy, even over continental areas, as exhibited in the July 2018 European wind drought. Coverage for these large energy gaps will require storage of huge amounts of backup energy, with the amount being undefined, as the size of some future gap is undefined. Hydrogen generation, storage and electricity regeneration is a three step process, each costing money and energy, with the total energy loss being close to 50%. Before declaring victory with a hydrogen backup, these questions have to be addressed

    !. What if the nature of the worst case energy shortfall that a hydrogen storage system would handle? Magnitude? Frequency of occurrence?
    2. How often will there be energy shortfalls that exceed the designed capability of a proposed hydrogen storage capability? What will be the consequences to society?

    3. What is the total cost and cost per customer of this “insurance plan” in terms of storage system capital and increased capacity needs to accommodate storage losses?

    Recently, we have been seeing the phrase “demand management” creeping into the vocabulary of VRE promoters. In addition, we now hear that natural gas would be relabeled as a “renewable energy”. These are admissions that 100% VRE will be accompanied by periods of energy shortages that will require management (by some as yet undefined bureaucracy.

    Blackouts are no longer a flaw, they are a feature. “…. , it will be good for you”

  4. Posting this picture tomorrow, accompanying my letter to Rishi Sunak (UK Chancellor of The Exchequer), with the Subject:
    Insane, perpetual £31.83 billion/year cost of renewables in the Sixth Carbon Budget is self-harm economics.

    This Blogpost refers:

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