Why the Thames Estuary’s future will be hydrogen-powered

Kate Willard

The UK has a net zero carbon pledge by 2050, and it is recognised that hydrogen has a significant role in achieving this goal. Most recently, the Prime Minister’s announcement for a 10-point climate plan to reach net zero included having five gigawatts of low-carbon hydrogen energy production capacity by 2030. The Thames Estuary presents a unique opportunity for investment in Hydrogen Infrastructure at scale like nowhere else in the UK, and as such could play a vital role in the Green Recovery, supporting a de-carbonised London and keeping the UK on track towards a net zero future.

What are the opportunities:

Situated next to one of the world’s leading cities that has strong targets around zero emissions, with a large demand on its energy and transport infrastructure, the Estuary can present a critical mass in its shift towards a de-carbonised future at scale, which will become highly attractive to investors. We also have critical mass that will enable adoption at scale, as well as large opportunities in air and port side uses, public transport with the TFL bus fleet, and other municipal uses as well as a significant logistics sector to service.

We already have locations within the Estuary where progress is being made. A transition to incorporating hydrogen in the domestic gas supply and new plants to manufacture hydrogen for public transport are coming forward. With large brownfield sites and an existing petrochemical infrastructure, the time is right to put in place a plan to transition towards a low, and ultimately zero carbon future. We have the ingredients (the sites, access to water, the desire) and the opportunity (a clear shift in demand) to create a compelling case for investment in hydrogen in the Thames Estuary.

As well as the environment benefits, there is an opportunity to unlock £18bn GVA and create 75,000 new jobs in the Thames Estuary region alone. This is key for the levelling up agenda and promoting economic growth post-Brexit and post-Covid. In addition to upskilling in the immediate future, there are also longer-term positive impacts as future generations will be inspired to build on the momentum that is already in motion in the Estuary, and propel the nation towards net zero. 

There are a number of emerging areas of clear demand:

  • Tightening emissions limits in London will create a push to shift public transport to non-carbon fuels. TfL operate 9,600 services across the city carrying 1.8bn passengers per annum
  • Opportunities to explore hydrogen to support river transport for both passengers and freight, and also portside uses
  • Introduction of hydrogen to domestic gas supply and development of a hydrogen transmission system
  • Explore how industry can transition to hydrogen and other low carbon energy sources

Why Hydrogen?

Hydrogen has a significant role to play as an alternative to fossil fuels in a range of applications such as transport, heating and industry.

Hydrogen power enables you to make more use of renewable energy sources. For example, the Estuary itself has a number of wind farms to reduce CO2 and provide a renewable alternative to fossil fuels. However, when the demand is present for energy, that is not necessarily the precise moment when the wind is blowing, and therefore a back-up supply is required. Hydrogen offers a solution for any access demand on the basis that like petrol, and unlike wind, it can be stored and deployed at a later stage.  This is not to say hydrogen is a silver bullet for decarbonisation, but undeniably it has a significant role to play in promoting energy efficiency across many verticals.

By comparison, the limitations of batteries are well documented, and it is clear they are not suitable for all modes of transport. The size and weight of even the most advanced batteries are too big and heavy for the power output required for public transport vehicles. Moreover, the problem remains of how to safely recycle batteries without doing damage to the environment and adding to air pollution when melting them down. Alternatively, hydrogen is easy to store and causes minimal harm to the environment by way of emissions.

Research by our colleagues at The University of Kent has predicted that there is an estimated 2050 regional demand of 0.8 million- 1.25 million tonnes of Hydrogen per annum across the Estuary Region.

Next steps:

With this unique demand case for positive environmental innovation and change, the Thames Estuary Growth Board held its first public summit, comprised of leading experts, researchers and stakeholders, to devise a plan for unlocking the potential of hydrogen power in the Thames Estuary. This was attended by the National Grid; Rise who are developing a green hydrogen fuel source for buses in London; and Edwin Pang, Director of Arcsilea, who talked about the Port of London Authority’s (PLA) vision for hydrogen power; to name a few.

Following the event, the Growth Board is drawing up a roadmap which will set out their journey to developing a hydrogen ecosystem, but there are clear next steps that have already been identified: 

Establish demand – Hydrogen power is expensive, but economies of scale will bring this down over time. We need to establish the size of the market and the key points in time for investment. Initially though, Government policy, incentives, and pricing mechanisms will be essential in encouraging the transition to hydrogen. Before the wind industry was fully established, the UK Government provided a high level of support for infrastructure with pricing mechanisms, which accelerated the road to economies of scale – this has happened for solar and wind, and it is something we need for hydrogen power too to enable prices to drop and inspire widespread adoption.

Identify potential investment sources and create a market proposition – Secure initial investment to prove the concept and build confidence. We need to develop our investment and opportunity road map so that we are able to articulate our ambition and direction to enable us to develop our investors.

Establish Credibility and Confidence – A key part of adopting new technologies will be enabling businesses to see how the new technologies can work for them. Because of our unique geography, the Estuary provides a good place to do real-life demonstrations and testing of hydrogen buses for example. It is all very well having the prototypes, but the only way you build consumer confidence if through real world application.

Enable Research – Establish where the main areas of research are and develop the Estuary as a test bed for implementation.

Develop Supply – In the very short term, we may need to rely on importing hydrogen from elsewhere because the demand in early stages may not be sufficient for investment.  

Identify Manufacturing Infrastructure – Hydrogen manufacture requires a significant amount of energy. Electrolysis is the least polluting method, but only if the electricity used comes from renewable sources – as such, we will need to significantly increase our generation of electricity from renewable sources.  

Transition Technologies – We will need to consider the end users and how they may transition to a fully carbon free approach.

The benefits of a hydrogen-fuelled future are vast. We have the skills, commitment, passion and ambition to make this a reality. Our summit was a great step forward, now, we are going to see it through.

Kate Willard OBE, Estuary Envoy https://thamesestuary.org.uk/