Ireland’s first green hydrogen project to come on stream ‘in weeks’

Belfast buses to be powered by fuel generated at Energia windfarm in Co Antrim

Belfast is set to receive Ireland’s first hydrogen-powered double-decker buses in coming weeks using fuel coming from wind energy generated in nearby north Antrim.

The initiative is the first “green hydrogen” project on the island of Ireland and the first step to decarbonise Northern Ireland’s public transport by 2040, according to Mark Welsh, energy services manager with Energia, which is generating the hydrogen at its wind farm near Ballymena.

Green hydrogen is produced by using renewable electricity to power electrolyser technology that splits the hydrogen from water molecules.

Great potential

Energia’s electrolyser produces hydrogen on location, where it is stored in trailers before being transported to a new refuelling station in Belfast and it will soon fuel buses developed by Wrightbus for Translink, the transport operator in the city.

The development is tangible indication of green hydrogen’s potential, and builds on the success of the electricity industry in Ireland, which will see 50 per cent renewables on the grid this year, Mr Welsh told an energy webinar in Belfast. The webinar was hosted by Hydrogen Enabled Zero-Emission Supply Chains (Hazel), an alliance of academia and energy industry supporting efforts to decarbonise Europe using clean renewable power.

Hydrogen, Mr Welsh said, was not a silver bullet; he preferred to describe it as “silver buckshot”; suitable in a variety of situations. In the Irish context, it could be scaled up in tandem with expansion of offshore wind and reduce the need for expensive expansion of capacity on the power grid.

Its prime role would be in decarbonising larger vehicles – buses, trains and ferries – and for heating, replacing natural gas on the grid. But there was a need to reduce the cost of electrolysers and associated infrastructure and to incentivise its use among consumers.

To fulfil its potential and be a cheap fuel, energy efficiency at household level was essential, he said. Payback on investment on making homes more comfortable could be achieved in less than two years, but “it’s a challenge to give money away for energy efficiency”, he noted.

Vehicle batteries

Hydrogen would also have its place in the electric vehicle market, especially at the luxury end, but batteries were too heavy for larger vehicles, he said. Where used for heating, the possibility of generating 100 per cent hydrogen offshore and then injecting into the gas grid was realisable. Similarly, using anaerobic digesters it could be used to capture CO2 and generate biomethane, which could also be added to the grid.

With the help of Artemis Technologies, a hydrogen-fuelled hydrofoil ferry was being developed in Belfast with the potential to reduce energy consumption by 80 per cent, Mr Welsh added.

Paul McCormack, programme manager of GenComm, an Interreg project funded by the European Commission, said green hydrogen “can assist Europe reach climate change targets as it enables massive decarbonisation of industry heat, power generation and transport sectors”.

GenComm and Hazel were “assisting Europe to navigate its journey to sustainability using green hydrogen as the true north on the net-zero strategy compass”.

Demand for hydrogen could grow eightfold by 2050 – to almost the size of the current European electricity system – and become a sector worth €120 billion annually, according to a report by Aurora Energy Research (AER) published on Tuesday.

Emissions targets

With Ireland, the UK and Europe legislating net-zero emissions targets for 2050, hydrogen could play a significant role in addressing high emission sectors, it finds. Currently, the European market for hydrogen is small and limited largely to oil refineries and ammonia production for fertilisers.

Future growth in green hydrogen will be facilitated by strong growth in solar and wind capacity, it predicts.

“The buzz around hydrogen has been picking up quickly. Hydrogen from low-carbon sources could play a key role in decarbonising Europe’s heaviest polluters, and some projects are already under way,” said AER’s head of global commodities, Anise Ganbold.

The UK, the Netherlands and Norway are attractive locations for “blue hydrogen” as these countries have policies favouring gas use combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS) – blue hydrogen is produced from natural gas, with CCS technology scooping up resulting CO2.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times