Tag: hydrogen

Committing to a net zero power system as part of COP26

Dear Prime Minister, Chancellor, COP26 President and Minister for Energy and Clean Growth,

We are a group of energy companies investing tens of billions in the coming decade, deploying the low carbon infrastructure the UK will need to get to net zero and drive a green recovery to the COVID-19 crisis.

We welcome the leadership shown on the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, and the detailed work going on across government to deliver a net zero economy by 2050. We are writing to you to call on the Government to signal what this will mean for UK electricity decarbonisation by committing to a date for a net zero power system.

Head of BECCS inspects pilot plant within Drax Power Station's CCUS Incubation Unit

Head of BECCS Carl Clayton inspects pipes at the CCUS Incubation Area, Drax Power Station

The electricity sector will be the backbone of our net zero economy, and there will be ever increasing periods where Great Britain is powered by only zero carbon generation. To support this, the Electricity System Operator is putting in place the systems, products and services to enable periods of zero emissions electricity system operation by 2025.

Achieving a net zero power system will require government to continue its efforts in key policy areas such as carbon pricing, which has been central in delivering UK leadership in the move away from coal and has led to UK electricity emissions falling by over 63% between 2012 and 2019 alone.

It is thanks to successive governments’ commitment to robust carbon pricing that the UK is now using levels of coal in power generation last seen 250 years ago – before the birth of the steam locomotive. A consistent, robust carbon price has also unlocked long term investment low-carbon power generation such that power generated by renewables overtook fossil fuel power generation for the first time in British history in the first quarter of 2020.

Yet, even with the demise of coal and the progress in offshore wind, more needs to be done to drive the remaining emissions from electricity as its use is extended across the economy.

In the near-term, in combination with other policies, continued robust carbon pricing on electricity will incentivise the continued deployment of low carbon generation, market dispatch of upcoming gas-fired generation with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects and the blending of low carbon hydrogen with gas-fired generation. Further forward, a robust carbon price can incentivise 100% hydrogen use in gas-fired generation, and importantly drive negative emissions to facilitate the delivery of a net zero economy.

Next year, the world’s attention will focus on Glasgow and negotiations crucial to achieving our climate change targets, with important commitments already made by China, the EU, Japan and South Korea amongst others. An ambitious 2030 target from the UK will help kickstart the Sprint to Glasgow ahead of the UK-UN Climate Summit on 12 December.

Electricity cables and pylon snaking around a mountain near Cruachan Power Station in the Highlands

Electricity cables and pylon snaking around a mountain near Cruachan Power Station, Drax’s flexible pumped storage facility in the Highlands

2030 ambition is clearly needed, but to deliver on net zero, deep decarbonisation will be required. Previous commitments from the UK on its coal phase out and being the first major economy to adopt a net zero target continue to encourage similar international actions. To build on these and continue UK leadership on electricity sector decarbonisation, we call on the UK to commit to a date for a net zero power system ahead of COP26, to match the commitment of the US President-elect’s Clean Energy Plan. To ensure the maximum benefit at lowest cost, the chosen date should be informed by analysis and consider broad stakeholder input.

Alongside near-term stability as the UK’s carbon pricing future is determined, to meet this commitment Government should launch a consultation on a date for a net zero power system by the Budget next year, with a target date to be confirmed in the UK’s upcoming Net Zero Strategy. This commitment would send a signal to the rest of the world that the UK intends to maintain its leadership position on climate and to build a greener, more resilient economy.


  • Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
  • Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and UNFCCC COP26 President
  • Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth


BP, Drax, National Grid ESO, Sembcorp, Shell and SSE

View/download letter in PDF format


Is renewable-rich the new oil-rich?

Aerial view of hundreds solar energy modules or panels rows along the dry lands at Atacama Desert, Chile. Huge Photovoltaic PV Plant in the middle of the desert from an aerial drone point of view

We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘oil-rich’ nations, but as low carbon energy sources become ever more important to meeting global demand, renewable energy could become a global export. With a future favouring zero-carbon and even negative emissions innovation, here are some countries that are not only harnessing their natural resources to make more renewable energy, but are making progress in storing and exporting it.

Could these new opportunities lead us to one day deem them ‘renewable-rich’?

Could Europe import its solar power supply?

With the largest concentrated solar farm in the world, Morocco is already streets ahead in its ability to capture and convert sunlight into power. The 3,000 hectare solar complex, known as Noor-Ouarzazate, has a capacity of 580 megawatts (MW), which provides enough power for a city twice the size of Marrakesh.

Noor-Ouarzazate Power Plant, Morocco. Image source: ACWA Power

Its uses curved mirrors to direct sunlight into a singular beam that creates enough heat to melt salt in a central tower. This stores the heat and – when needed – is used to create steam which spins a turbine and generates electricity. This has helped keep Morocco on course to achieve its goal of deriving 42% of its power from renewable sources by the end of 2020, which potentially means a surplus in the coming years.

Morocco already has 1.4 gigawatts (GW) of interconnection with Spain, and another 700 MW is scheduled to come online before 2026. The country’s close proximity to Europe could make its solar capacity a source of power across the continent.

Africa’s geothermal potential

Olkaria II geothermal power plant in Kenya

Kenya was the first African nation to embrace geothermal energy and has now been using it for decades. In 1985, Kenya’s geothermal generation produced 45 MW of power – 30 years later, the country now turns over 630 MW.

Kenya’s ample generation of geothermal electricity is due to an abundance of steam energy in the underground volcanic wells of Olkaria, in the Great Rift Valley. In 2015, the region was responsible for providing 47% of the country’s power.

Currently the Olkaria region is thought to have a potential capacity of 2 GW of power, which could help to provide a source of clean energy for Kenya’s neighbours. However, there is potential for the rest of East Africa to generate its own geothermal power.

In this region of the continent there is an estimated 20 GW of power generation capacity possible  from stored geothermal energy, while the demand for the creation of usable grids that can connect multiple countries is high. Kenya is currently expanding its own grid, installing a planned 3,600 miles of new electrical wiring across the country.

Winds of change

China’s position in the renewable energy market is already up top, with continuous investment in solar and hydro power giving it a renewable capacity of more than 700 GW

The country is also home to the world’s largest onshore wind farm, in the form of the Gansu Wind Farm Project, which is made up of over 7,000 turbines. It is set to have a capacity of 20 GW by the end of 2020, bringing the nationwide installed wind capacity to 250 GW.

With China exporting more than 20,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity in 2018, large scale renewable projects can have a wide-reaching effect beyond its borders. South-Asia is the primary market, but excesses of power in Western China have stoked ideas of exporting power as far away as Germany.

Can the US store the world’s carbon?

In the quest for zero-carbon energy it won’t just be nations that can export excess energy that could stand to profit – those that can import emissions could also benefit.

While many countries are developing the capabilities to capture carbon dioxide (CO2), storing it safely and permanently is another question. Having underground facilities that can store CO2 creates an opportunity to import and sequester carbon as a service for other nations. Norway is already doing it, but the US has the greatest potential thanks to its abundance of large underground storage capabilities.

The Global CCS Institute highlights the US as the country most prepared to deploy carbon capture and storage (CCS) at scale, thanks to its vast landscape, history of injecting CO2 in enhanced oil recovery, and favourable government policies.

The Petra Nova plant in Texas is also known as the world’s largest carbon capture facility. The coal-power station captured more than 1 million tonnes of CO2 within the first 10 months of operating as a 654 MW unit.

Carbon capture facility at the Petra Nova coal-fired power plant, Texas, USA

Chile’s hydrogen innovation

Hydrogen is becoming increasingly relevant as an energy source thanks to its ability to generate electricity and power transport while releasing far fewer emissions than other fossil fuels.

Chile was an early proponent of energy sharing with its hydrogen programme. The country uses solar electricity generated in the Atacama Desert (which sees 3,000 hours of sunlight a year), to power hydrogen production in a process called electrolysis, which uses electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.

Chile plans to export the gas to Japan and South Korea, but with global demand for hydrogen set to grow, higher-volume, further-reaching exporting of the country’s hydrogen could soon be on the way.

Going forward, these green innovations – from carbon storage to geothermal potential – could increasingly be shared between countries and continents in an attempt to lower the overall carbon footprint of the world’s energy. This could create a global power shift toward nations which, rather than having high capacity for fossil fuel extraction, can instead use a different set of natural resources to generate, store and export cleaner energy.

What is a fuel cell and how will they help power the future?

A model fuel cell car

NASA Museum, Houston, Texas

How do you get a drink in space? That was one of the challenges for NASA in the 1960s and 70s when its Gemini and Apollo programmes were first preparing to take humans into space.

The answer, it turned out, surprisingly lay in the electricity source of the capsules’ control modules. Primitive by today’s standard, these panels were powered by what are known as fuel cells, which combined hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity. The by-product of this reaction is heat but also water – pure enough for astronauts to drink.

Fuel cells offered NASA a much better option than the clunky batteries and inefficient solar arrays of the 1960s, and today they still remain on the forefront of energy technology, presenting the opportunity to clean up roads, power buildings and even help to reduce and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power stations.

Power through reaction

At its most basic, a fuel cell is a device that uses a fuel source to generate electricity through a series of chemical reactions.

All fuel cells consist of three segments, two catalytic electrodes – a negatively charged anode on one side and a positively charged cathode on the other, and an electrolyte separating them. In a simple fuel cell, hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, is pumped to one electrode and oxygen to the other. Two different reactions then occur at the interfaces between the segments which generates electricity and water.

What allows this reaction to generate electricity is the electrolyte, which selectively transports charged particles from one electrode to the other. These charged molecules link the two reactions at the cathode and anode together and allow the overall reaction to occur. When the chemicals fed into the cell react at the electrodes, it creates an electrical current that can be harnessed as a power source.

Many different kinds of chemicals can be used in a fuel cell, such as natural gas or propane instead of hydrogen. A fuel cell is usually named based on the electrolyte used. Different electrolytes selectively transport different molecules across. The catalysts at either side are specialised to ensure that the correct reactions can occur at a fast enough rate.

For the Apollo missions, for example, NASA used alkaline fuel cells with potassium hydroxide electrolytes, but other types such as phosphoric acids, molten carbonates, or even solid ceramic electrolytes also exist.

The by-products to come out of a fuel cell all depend on what goes into it, however, their ability to generate electricity while creating few emissions, means they could have a key role to play in decarbonisation.

Fuel cells as a battery alternative

Fuel cells, like batteries, can store potential energy (in the form of chemicals), and then quickly produce an electrical current when needed. Their key difference, however, is that while batteries will eventually run out of power and need to be recharged, fuel cells will continue to function and produce electricity so long as there is fuel being fed in.

One of the most promising uses for fuel cells as an alternative to batteries is in electric vehicles.

Rachel Grima, a Research and Innovation Engineer at Drax, explains:

“Because it’s so light, hydrogen has a lot of potential when it comes to larger vehicles, like trucks and boats. Whereas battery-powered trucks are more difficult to design because they’re so heavy.”

These vehicles can pull in oxygen from the surrounding air to react with the stored hydrogen, producing only heat and water vapour as waste products. Which – coupled with an expanding network of hydrogen fuelling stations around the UK, Europe and US – makes them a transport fuel with a potentially big future.

Fuel cells, in conjunction with electrolysers, can also operate as large-scale storage option. Electrolysers operate in reverse to fuel cells, using excess electricity from the grid to produce hydrogen from water and storing it until it’s needed. When there is demand for electricity, the hydrogen is released and electricity generation begins in the fuel cell.

A project on the islands of Orkney is using the excess electricity generated by local, community-owned wind turbines to power a electrolyser and store hydrogen, that can be transported to fuel cells around the archipelago.

Fuel cells’ ability to take chemicals and generate electricity is also leading to experiments at Drax for one of the most important areas in energy today: carbon capture.

Turning COto power

Drax is already piloting bioenergy carbon capture and storage technologies, but fuel cells offer the unique ability to capture and use carbon while also adding another form of electricity generation to Drax Power Station.

“We’re looking at using a molten carbonate fuel cell that operates on natural gas, oxygen and CO2,” says Grima. “It’s basic chemistry that we can exploit to do carbon capture.”

The molten carbonate, a 600 degrees Celsius liquid made up of either lithium potassium or lithiumsodium carbonate sits in a ceramic matrix and functions as the electrolyte in the fuel cell. Natural gas and steam enter on one side and pass through a reformer that converts them into hydrogen and CO2.

On the other side, flue gas – the emissions (including biogenic CO2) which normally enter the atmosphere from Drax’s biomass units – is captured and fed into the cell alongside air from the atmosphere. The CO2and oxygen (O2) pass over the electrode where they form carbonate (CO32-) which is transported across the electrolyte to then react with the hydrogen (H2), creating an electrical charge.

“It’s like combining an open cycle gas turbine (OCGT) with carbon capture,” says Grima. “It has the electrical efficiency of an OCGT. But the difference is it captures COfrom our biomass units as well as its own CO2.”

Along with capturing and using CO2, the fuel cell also reduces nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from the flue gas, some of which are destroyed when the O2and CO2 react at the electrode.

From the side of the cell where flue gas enters a CO2-depleted gas is released. On the other side of the cell the by-products are water and CO2.

During a government-supported front end engineering and design (FEED) study starting this spring, this COwill also be captured, then fed through a pipeline running from Drax Power Station into the greenhouse of a nearby salad grower. Here it will act to accelerate the growth of tomatoes.

The partnership between Drax, FuelCell Energy, P3P Partners and the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy could provide an additional opportunity for the UK’s biggest renewable power generator to deploy bioenergy carbon capture usage and storage (BECCUS) at scale in the mid 2020s.

From powering space ships in the 70s to offering greenhouse-gas free transport, fuel cells continue to advance. As low-carbon electricity sources become more important they’re set to play a bigger role yet.

Learn more about carbon capture, usage and storage in our series: