Diversifying the Irish Energy Mix, could hydrogen be the answer?

The recent news that Nord stream has resumed flows into Europe will ease some of the fears of supply shortages heading into the winter for us all and have associated knock-on effects pricewise. Although back flowing, the EU commission on Wednesday urged countries to cut gas use by 15% over the next seven months to reduce reliance on this source of gas in Europe. How practical such a request is remains to be seen, with limited short-term options available to change tact and winter looming. Furthermore. prices are not coming down anytime soon and as recent extreme weather events have shown us, climate change is here, and we need to make swift changes now to limit its impacts.

Considering where we are at in the energy transition, a fundamental shift has occurred in how we as sovereign nations and as a wider European Union treat energy security in the face of decarbonisation. The EU reacted with REPowerEU: Joint European action for more affordable, secure and sustainable energy, a lengthy series of short-term and long-term actions which will reduce dependence on Russian imports of fossil fuels. It has three pillars, energy conservation, diversifying supplies and quickly substituting fossil fuels by accelerating Europe’s clean energy transition. Ireland will have a role to play in this and the investment in an EU-Wide hydrogen backbone through REPowerEU is something we can play a part in.

The Irish government has reacted to the war in Ukraine with a new National Energy Security framework, published in April, which has a series of actions arising from it. 31 short and long-term responses are included, ranging from; relief on consumers bills through setting the Public Service Obligation levy (PSO) to zero, identifying how the country could react if the gas did stop flowing from abroad, right through to longer-term considerations like streamlining the development of new renewables and prioritising the development of a hydrogen strategy.

A consultation on the development of a hydrogen strategy was published last week by the Department of the Environment Communications and Climate, which has finally given this area of the energy system some direction in its deployment. The development of a hydrogen strategy to help improve energy security draws a parallel to how the Irish government reacted during the Arab oil crisis in the 1970s. When faced with the threat of the country grinding to a halt in the absence of oil back then, Bord na Mona were tasked with undertaking a review of potential peat resources. They instituted their third development programme to harvest new peatland areas and built new electricity generating stations to provide us with better energy security. Although we are not going back to burning peat for electricity generation ever again, the country is now faced with a similar choice, with a different technology.

Hydrogen is often quoted by colours with the colour indicating how it is made, for Ireland and Irish interests, the only colour worth considering is green. Green Hydrogen is produced from renewables and is a zero-carbon energy source. Why green hydrogen is right for Ireland comes down to one main factor, our huge offshore wind resource. Ireland’s sea area is 10 times our landmass, so if we can get offshore wind turbines, both floating and fixed bed, across a fraction of this area we could secure our energy independence in about a decade. The potential installed capacity of offshore wind is estimated to be over 30GW which, when the wind is blowing, will be 4-5 times our electricity needs. The hydrogen strategy will play an important part in developing this area, as we can provide an export in a cross-European hydrogen commodity market which could develop out of the REPowerEU plan. When people talk about Ireland incorporated becoming a renewable energy powerhouse, its areas like this where Ireland could really act as an early mover, take progressive decisions, and lead Europe in the transition.

Domestically, the potential for hydrogen use will initially be slow owing to its direct uses globally in heavy industry not existing in the Irish industrial sector (such as a feedstock), nonetheless it has a role to play. Heavy goods transport, storing excess electricity as hydrogen and then using in power generation would make sense in an Irish context but to develop a market in Ireland a target approach to development will be needed. Generating hydrogen using excess electricity when large offshore wind farms come online could be the initial model for Ireland, with Ireland becoming an export nation to European hydrogen clusters shortly after. The EU has significant hydrogen demand centres which its plausible to see export from Ireland in large tankers or in hydrogen pipelines to the European mainland. The hydrogen strategy published by the government could pave the way for the development of a hydrogen economy in Ireland, helping Ireland and the EU reach net-zero carbon emissions before 2050.

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