14 Jul 2021
Neil Weaver

Future Energy Scenarios 2021 - the futures for hydrogen and batteries?

This year’s Future Energy Scenarios (FES 2021) document details four potential scenarios for the decarbonisation of energy by 2050. The UK reaches its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 in three of these. This is very promising. These scenarios, however, will require complex system solutions and/or conscious lifestyle changes across our society.

The four scenarios outlined in FES 2021. Three of the four scenarios meet the UK’s target of net-zero by 2050.

With that in mind, here are a couple of our quick takeaways from these scenarios:


What does the future hold?

One of the most striking takeaways from FES 2021 is the expected reliance on hydrogen. National Grid Electricity System Operator (NG ESO) estimates that, by 2035, between 2 TWh and 10 TWh of hydrogen storage will be required in their three net-zero scenarios, with storage continuing to ramp up after that.

Predicted hydrogen storage levels across NG ESO’s net zero scenarios.

Two of these scenarios also foresee the use of hydrogen boilers (powered by a national hydrogen network) or hybrid heat pumps in most homes. This is a lot of faith to place in hydrogen. This isn’t to say that hydrogen can’t, won’t or shouldn’t form an important part of the UK’s energy strategy. This could be a lot of eggs placed in one largely unproven basket.

Low-carbon hydrogen production

As pointed out by Michael Liebreich, it will take time (potentially decades) for low-carbon hydrogen - and ‘green’ hydrogen (produced via a combination of renewable energy and electrolysis) in particular - to compete economically with ‘grey’ hydrogen. ‘Grey’ hydrogen is produced by methane reformation without the means to capture emissions.

Methane reformation, coal gasification and partial oil oxidation account for almost all of the hydrogen currently produced in the UK. As of 2019, electrolysis was responsible for just 4% of the UK’s hydrogen production. Even then, fossil fuel combustion powers the vast majority of electrolysers. In the net zero scenarios laid out by NG ESO, demand for low-carbon hydrogen ranges from 34 TWh to 332 TWh by 2050. Currently, low-carbon hydrogen production is basically zero.

Distribution of hydrogen production methods in the United Kingdom (UK) as of 2019. Source: Statista.

What is the plan?

The Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) are planning 42 TWh of low-carbon hydrogen production by 2030. However, dig deeper into their ‘Energy white paper: Powering our net zero future’ (December 2020) and a possible roadblock emerges. They still need to carry out large-scale testing for “assurances on safety, security, cost and the potential for emissions reduction”. If any one of these things can’t be guaranteed, it will impact the scale of hydrogen usage outlined in these scenarios. FES 2021 points out that there are currently “no regulations nor market” for hydrogen supply at scale. To reiterate: lots of eggs, unproven basket.

The net zero scenarios are all dependent on the ramping up of hydrogen production and storage to various extents. According to FES 2021, the exploration and unlocking of hydrogen’s potential will be key to the UK reaching its 2050 target.

Battery energy storage

What does the future hold?

With a massive increase in wind and solar generation expected in all four scenarios (between 34 GW and 77 GW needed to meet demand in 2030), up to 13 GW of new electricity storage could be required to help balance periods of high and low renewable output. The largest growth is expected in battery energy storage. Batteries will make up the biggest share of power output (GW) of all electricity storage technologies.

Across the four scenarios, expected battery capacity ranges from:

  • ~5 GW to ~13 GW by 2030.
  • ~16 GW to ~28 GW by 2050.

Why the difference in forecasted capacities?

The System Transformation scenario - in which our entire system is transformed to rely much more heavily on hydrogen - foresees battery energy storage capacity increase at a slower rate. Both the System Transformation scenario and the Steady Progression scenario foresee virtually identical levels of battery capacity in 2030 and 2050. The latter has the “slowest credible decarbonisation”, requires “minimal behaviour change”, and fails to reach the 2050 target.

Power and energy outputs of electricity storage types in 2030 and 2050, according to NG ESO’s System Transformation scenario.

It is oversimplistic to suggest this is a ‘hydrogen vs. battery’ battle. Each has fundamentally different properties, solves different problems, and will operate in different markets.

NG ESO’s Leading the Way scenario imagines large increases in hydrogen storage/production and battery output. It also leads to the fastest rate of decarbonisation of all four scenarios.

Overall, this year’s Future Energy Scenarios point to a very positive future, as long as policy-makers and consumers are aware of the importance of decarbonisation and are willing to adapt appropriately. It will be interesting to watch and compare the progress of hydrogen and battery energy storage over the coming decade and beyond.

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