I wrote about Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen’s hydrogen obsession back in August. A lot has happened since then, so here’s the next episode:
Boiler room scam averted
On 14 December, Claire Coutinho, Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero of the United Kingdom announced the inevitable—the Redcar hydrogen boiler scheme, hyped by Ben Houchen and Redcar MP Jacob Young has bitten the dust. In March 2023, Coutinho’s predecessor Grant Shapps tried to sneak in a £3.5bn annual subsidy for the hydrogen industry by adding a £118 per year levy to our energy bills. As soon as Shapps was forced to U-Turn on this in August, the writing was on the wall for the hydrogen gravy train. To think that only two years ago, Jacob Young was confidently predicting that hydrogen would 100% replace natural gas in the national network.
The world’s smallest fleet
On the same day as the Redcar climbdown, as a sop to the hydrogen fanatics, Coutinho unveiled two hydrogen projects in Teesside. The first of these is a scheme to replace diesel vehicles at Tees Port with hydrogen ones. The press release carefully omits to say how many vehicles will be involved. The announcement of a similar scheme at Teesside Airport back in August contained a similar omission. A cynic would argue that both projects are examples of green-washing PR involving tiny fleets of vehicles, which will have a negligible impact on decarbonizing the UK. The second Teesside hydrogen announcement formed part of a national programme of 13 electrolytic (or “green”) hydrogen projects, although the subtext of the press release is that annual hydrogen subsidies have been slashed from £3.5 billion to £200 million.
She blinded me with science
“Electrolytic” seems to have replaced “green” in the hydrogen lexicon, presumably because it sounds a bit more sciencey. The 13 new projects include Tees Green Hydrogen, a project by French state electricity company EDF to produce hydrogen at a new plant at Lackenby in Teesside Freeport. Their press release highlights that the plant will be partially powered by a new array of solar panels. These are welcome, we need as many as we can get. But if you’re going to build a solar farm, why not convert the power into electricity instead of wasting 30% by splitting water to produce green hydrogen? If the National Grid had a temporary over-supply of electricity, the solar power could be diverted to produce green hydrogen. But solar power, unlike wind power, is always generated at a time of the day when people need it, so this wouldn’t happen too often.
But wait a minute…
A separate press release from EDF on the same day confirms that Tees Green Hydrogen will also be partially powered by the Teesside Wind Farm, also known as the Redcar Wind Farm. Neither press release mentions that this wind farm already exists. Not only that, EDF owns it, it supplies 100% of it’s power to the National Grid, and it produces the highest cost electricity of any UK offshore windfarm. Presumably, as with the solar farm, EDF intend to only tap power for green hydrogen in periods when the National Grid is over-supplied. After all, they’re getting paid a whopping £236/MWh for their electricity. No wonder Coutinho confirmed that one of the reasons for the withdrawal of the Redcar hydrogen boiler scheme was that Tees Green Hydrogen wouldn’t be able to supply enough hydrogen to run it.
The Department for Energy and Net Zero (DESNZ) press release states that Tees Green Hydrogen will have a capacity of 5.2MW. Typically, this is contradicted by EDF’s press release, which lists it as 7.5MW. By comparison, the above-mentioned Redcar Wind Farm, a relative minnow compared to the new leviathans coming on-stream further out to sea, dwarves the proposed green hydrogen plant, with a capacity of 62MW. And EDF’s Hartlepool Nuclear Power Station, just over on the other side of the River Tees, has a capacity of 1185MW, 185 times greater than Tees Green Hydrogen, even taking into account the higher metric quoted by EDF. All we’ll need to do is build another 184 Tees Green Hydrogens and we’ll be able to retire Hartlepool Power Station.
Licence to print money
But the Secretary of State is determined to make her pet hydrogen projects work by paying more than three times the going rate. She’s agreed an average strike price of £241MW/h for them. By comparison, in November 2023 her department was forced to increase the strike price for offshore wind from £44MWh to £73MWh because the government’s September auction spectacularly failed to attract any bids. Still, that’s a bargain compared to hydrogen.
Blue and green should never be seen
Of all of the fossil-fuel lobby con tricks, “blue” hydrogen is the most egregious, a naked statement of their intention to never stop drilling for natural gas. At some stage, just as with the attempted Redcar hydrogen boiler scam, politicians may realize that, if BP and others are still hell-bent on drilling for gas, it will be much more efficient to convert it into electricity than hydrogen. But Teesside’s “jam tomorrow” blue hydrogen scheme, H2Teesside, remains comfortably in the distant future. It’s just gone out to its second consultation, which will be completed on 23 January 2024, and it’s not scheduled for completion until 2027.
HyGreen is always touted as BP’s green hydrogen counterpart to their “blue” hydrogen H2Teesside, but they’re not really comparable. H2Teesside targets 1000MW of hydrogen production. HyGreen’s target is a mere 60MW by the start of production in 2025. BP always spin this by talking up a “jam tomorrow” target of 500MW by 2030. This just isn’t a serious proposition although, back in June, Redcar residents were furious to discover that BP was disingenuously conflating the future success of HyGreen with the soon-to-be-doomed hydrogen boiler scheme, despite assurances that HyGreen was only intended for industrial customers.
Carbon Capture Caper
But what about hydrogen’s idiot cousin, carbon capture (CCS)? CCS hype went into overdrive in again in December, with a press release from the East Coast Cluster (ECC) promising 25,000 CCS jobs per year in Britain’s “historic engine room: Teesside and the Humber” between 2023 and 2050. Bluster and hyperbole of truly Houchenesque proportions. There were zero jobs in 2023, so that isn’t doing much for the average. ECC’s flimflam fails to mention that Humber Freeport has agreed to divert it’s CO2 to the Viking field off the coast of Lincolnshire/Norfolk instead of the Endurance Aquifer off the coast of Yorkshire, despite the misleading map in the ECC press release. Perhaps the Endurance Aquifer part of ECC has been quietly dropped. The Humber region accounts for the vast majority of the CO2 production – 20mta as opposed to 3mta from Teesside, so switching to Viking would make sense, and presumably most of the “25,000” new CCS jobs will be going to Humber instead of Teesside.
As the main raison d’être for ECC quietly fades, it’s branching out into ever-more esoteric CCS boondoggles to justify its existence, such as a Teesside University and Scott Brothers joint project to spread blended clay on agricultural land. The Blended Clay theory is similar to another Looking Glass World CCS “solution” – Enhanced Rock Weathering, in which you crush rock, spread it on soil, and it reacts with the atmosphere to absorb CO2. Or something.
Astonishingly, we haven’t had a Direct Air Capture (DAC) project announced for Teesside yet. DAC uses a chemical agent to capture CO2 from the atmosphere. It’s phenomenally expensive. For example, to deal with US emissions alone would cost $3 trillion per annum, four times their defence budget. Look forward to a Ben Houchen DAC “Bob the Builder” construction cosplay photo-op in 2024.
Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)
So, if Carbon Capture is Hydrogen’s idiot cousin, SAF is the guy on the porch playing the banjo. The Government target is to replace 10% of fossil-fuel with SAF by 2030. 10% is the same percentage of fossil-fuel petrol that has been replaced by ethanol in E10 biofuel. This isn’t a coincidence, as this is a key psychological measure used by the fossil-fuel lobby to convince us that they are serious about tackling climate change, while happily continuing to drill for the other 90%. If the percentage of biofuel fell to even 9%, people might twig that the whole thing is a shake-down.
World beating Teesside™
Ben Houchen’s grandiosity was on display again in November as he promised to make Teesside “the UK capital of creating low-carbon aviation fuel” with no less than five future SAF plants. The SAF will be sourced from a bewildering, and increasingly implausible, mash-up of feedstocks including refuse derived fuel (RDF), sawmill and forest residues, “biogenic and non-biogenic wastes and residues” (me neither), “biogenic CO2” (ditto), green hydrogen (lol) and “agricultural and wood waste”. Ben and the SAF proponents need to get really specific about where all this stuff is going to come from – there’s only so much used chippy oil to go around, and up to 60% of this may be fraudulently labelled virgin palm oil. Fish and chips must suddenly be popular in the UAE because production of used cooking oil trebled between 2021 and 2022. As far as converting green hydrogen to SAF is concerned, this requires something verging on alchemy. The industry calls this eSAF, but even BP admit that the technology is nowhere near ready, and will be very expensive when it is.
Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF)
RDF is mentioned several of the Teesside SAF projects. The Circular Fuels plant, under construction at Teesside Freeport by Martin Corney, will rely on RDF too. And Scott Brothers intend to build yet another EfW plant at Haverton Hill using RDF. But there isn’t any more RDF available. The supply of domestic refuse from the entire North East of England has already been allocated to the existing Haverton Hill EfW Plant and the proposed Tees Valley Energy Recovery Facility. But could SAF be made from human excrement?
Always buy locally
In reality, SAF will need to be sourced mainly from plant-based feedstock, not vague “industrial sources”, and if we’re truly serious about going green, we’d want to source this locally, rather than importing it from Europe and elsewhere in the world. According to the Royal Society, if the UK wished to replace all of our fossil aviation fuel with SAF, we’d need to set aside 50% of our arable land to produce it. As we’re only targeting a 10% blend, we’d only need 5% of our arable land for SAF. This amounts to 470,000 hectares. We could allocate 100% of the arable land in the North East of England to SAF production, but this is only 183,000ha. We’d then need to go next door to Yorkshire and take up 50% of their arable land (287,000ha out of the available 583,000). However, many of the farms in Yorkshire and the North East are already supplying feedstock to existing biofuel projects such as biodiesel and E10 petrol additive. They provide 1 million tonnes of grain every year to the Ensus E10 plant in Teesside alone, and so SAF production would place greater strain on land resources.
If a tree falls in a forest
Does anybody hear? Further displacement of the UK’s domestic food production would be unconscionable, as we’re already suffering from supply chain disruptions, food shortages and price spikes caused by Brexit and the Ukraine war. So despite any ambition to go green by sourcing locally, we’ll have to look elsewhere in the world for our SAF feedstock. Drax plc have shown us the way to go by felling temperate forests on the Pacific coast of Canada, shredding the timber into pellets and shipping them 7,000 kilometres to their power station in Yorkshire. As far as I know, there are still some patches of tropical rainforest in Brazil and Indonesia that haven’t been clear cut yet. We could replace these with more palm oil and sugarcane plantations, then ship the feedstock to our SAF plants. And thanks to the huge Government subsidies for the airline industry, demand for aviation fuel continues to grow at 5% per annum. The green credentials of SAF could come under some strain, but the green-wash (m)admen from the fossil-fuel lobby have already proved that they can sell us anything including COP28 success, carbon neutrality, carbon offsets and carbon credits. Can your flight be green? The large airlines like to kid you that it can.