Energy company SSE has begun work on developing an underground cavern in Yorkshire to store hydrogen, with the aim of storing the renewable power source for when the freezing, windless conditions experienced over the past week occur in the future.
The project will produce hydrogen using renewable energy in a 35 megawatt electrolyser which will be stored in a cave the size of St Paul’s Cathedral located one kilometer deep at an existing SSE site at Aldbrough on the Yorkshire coast.
The hydrogen will be used to fire up a turbine that can export power to the grid when demand is high.
SSE hopes the “pathfinder” project, which could cost more than £100m, will demonstrate the technology ahead of larger projects on Humberside that will require larger pipelines and infrastructure. The company hopes to receive government money for the project through a fund set up to support low-carbon hydrogen projects.
Last week, icy conditions led to an increase in energy demand as Britons turned up the heat. At the same time, the lack of wind cut the power available from wind farms, forcing National Grid to pay high prices to encourage operators of gas “peaking plants” into action.
Hydrogen is an expensive form of power production as it requires large amounts of electricity to produce. However, it is seen as important in efforts to decarbonise heavy industry that is dependent on fossil fuels.
Catherine Raw, managing director of SSE’s thermal division, told the Guardian: “Although hydrogen is expensive compared to other fuels, you are able to deliver the power exactly when you need it during high demand and when power prices are justified. So this, even as a research and development project, will help ease the system pressure during periods of high demand like we’ve just seen.”
It emerged last week that Ofgem is pushing for a cap on how much power stations can charge the National Grid for back-up power. Ofgem wants to tighten the rules to prevent “excessive” profits and intends to publish proposals early next year.
The Grid spent more than £27m paying power stations to boost supplies at short notice when temperatures plunged on Monday last week. Vitol Group’s Rye House gas-fired power station, just north of London, made as much as £6,000 per megawatt-hour, reviving a debate about the power generators’ merits.
Gas-fired power stations were exempted from the electricity generator levy announced by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt last month, as the government cited their role in ensuring security of energy supply.
SSE has several gas-fired plants in the UK and Ireland. Raw declined to comment on last week’s events, but said: “The rising price of gas has forced us to take risks that we wouldn’t normally take, so how do you get rewarded for taking those risks? Our responsibility as a power generator is to keep the system balanced, and SSE takes that very seriously.”
SSE, which operates gas-fired power plants alongside hydro and wind farms, last month reported a more than tripling of profits thanks to skyrocketing energy prices.
SSE hopes to get the project underway by 2025, before a larger hydrogen storage project is planned for the same location in 2028 in collaboration with the Norwegian energy company Equinor. The pair are also developing the Keadby hydrogen power plant, planned to be the world’s first large 100% hydrogen power plant. SSE has signed a contract with Siemens Energy for design and engineering work on the pathfinder project.
Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, has invested in an industrial joint venture that will try to use hydrogen at an existing peaking facility at Brigg station in Lincolnshire.
The pilot, which will be launched in the second half of next year, aims to investigate what role hydrogen can play in power production.