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The reality of a technology triumvirate of nuclear, hydrogen and carbon capture

Rick Gray, Sector Lead for Energy at ISG, discusses UK's energy future - the seamless integration of hydrogen, nuclear power, and CCS (carbon capture and storage) technologies.

In the pursuit of a net zero future, the United Kingdom must embrace diverse technologies to decarbonise the power system by 2035. Among these, hydrogen, nuclear power, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) have emerged as key players in the country's ambitious plans to combat climate change. By harnessing the synergies among these technologies, the UK should be able to pave the way for a greener and more energy-efficient tomorrow.  But what’s the reality of these individual technologies coming together before 2035 without consolidated investment, green energy ‘hubs’ promoting collaboration between currently individual technology developers? 
Hydrogen, often hailed as the fuel of the future, has immense potential to transform the energy landscape. Through electrolysis, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power can produce green hydrogen, emitting only water vapor when used as fuel. The UK, with its abundant renewable resources, can capitalise on this technology to create a sustainable hydrogen economy. Green hydrogen can be employed in various sectors, including transportation, heating, and industry, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and significantly lowering carbon emissions.

The downside to hydrogen is that its production is very energy intensive, building the infrastructure requires substantial investment and many methods of production emit carbon dioxide.  For hydrogen to be a real success it seems it’s future relies on working closely with developments such as Small Modular Reactors and the UK industrial clusters that are developing Carbon Capture solutions for industry.  

Nuclear Power
Nuclear power has long been recognised as a reliable source of low-carbon energy. Nuclear reactors generate electricity without producing greenhouse gases, providing a stable power supply that complements the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources. As the UK upgrades its nuclear infrastructure, it can ensure a consistent energy supply while reducing its carbon footprint. Additionally, advancements in small modular reactors (SMRs) offer scalability and enhanced safety features, making nuclear energy an even more attractive option for the future energy mix.

Nuclear developments are notoriously difficult to get off the ground with significant development and capital costs.  This is particularly true with Giga scale developments that have an excruciatingly long tail before significant return on investment.  Linking hydrogen with power generation could potentially enhance the commerciality of new nuclear by using the off-peak power and heat for production.  There’s also a role for micro-reactors and Gen4 technologies, which are more likely to cost less that £1bn, be quicker to deploy and support industrial use cases that require energy for fixed assets and transport. 

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
While transitioning to renewable energy sources is crucial, mitigating emissions from existing fossil fuel-based infrastructure is a key part of the energy transition. CCS technology plays a role in this by capturing carbon dioxide emissions from industrial processes and power plants. The captured CO2 is then transported and stored underground in geological formations, preventing it from entering the atmosphere. By integrating CCS into existing facilities and new projects, the UK can significantly reduce emissions.

One of the key initiatives driving CCS adoption in the UK is the CCS Infrastructure Fund, a government-backed program that provides financial support for the development of CCS projects. This funding has facilitated the establishment of CCS clusters, where multiple industrial facilities can share CCS infrastructure, reducing costs and maximising efficiency.  the UK government has invested in research and innovation through initiatives like the Net Zero Teesside Project, which focuses on decarbonising the Teesside industrial cluster.  But with independent development plots in the freeport it will be interesting see how industry embraces these opportunities or not. 

"As we move toward a net-zero future, it becomes increasingly evident that the UK's energy mix can thrive by harmoniously integrating hydrogen, nuclear power, and CCS technologies. Nuclear power plants offer a reliable source of electricity, ideal for electrolyzing water to produce hydrogen, particularly in situations where electrification proves challenging."

Rick Gray, Sector Lead - Nuclear, ISG

ISG Perspectives 
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the real power of the UK's future energy mix lies in the seamless integration of hydrogen, nuclear power, and CCS technologies. Nuclear power plants can provide the steady baseload electricity required to electrolyze water for hydrogen production. This hydrogen can be utilized in industries and transportation, where electrification may be challenging or inefficient. Excess renewable energy can be diverted to power CCS facilities, ensuring that emissions from sectors like heavy industry are curtailed effectively.

Unfortunately, there seem few examples of viable projects that are moving to delivery fast enough to meet our carbon reduction commitments.  In discussions with the Energy Industries Council (EIC) it was highlighted that out of 13,500 energy projects 70% of them were ‘green’ projects but they only accounted for 30% of the value. Worryingly only 3% of hydrogen and 2% of carbon capture projects were passing through ‘Final Investment Decision’ compared to 20% of oil and gas. 

For the schemes that do make it through to delivery phases then construction, assembly, testing and commissioning seem like perilous and uncertain endeavours.  The reputation of EPC (Engineer, Procure, Construct) delivery gives clients low certainty on costs, challenging risk profiles and clunky transition to Operations. 

As part of the ISG ‘Performing Places’ strategy we are developing new ways of working to disrupt traditional EPC delivery. Our delivery models are designed to be more collaborative and ‘left shift’ the engagement of parties so that early decisions and planning carries right through to delivery phases.  We are also developing new capabilities that fit with modern methods of constructions such as the expediting of manufacturing, modular temporary data centres, collaborative commercial frameworks and ‘inside out’ engineering. 

These approaches will be necessary for individual technologies such as nuclear, hydrogen and CCS to be delivered in an integrated way.  The delivery can be planned, the business case more holistic and the certainty of delivery increased if we look at multi-faceted programmes in an integrated way. 

It’s not all doom and gloom. The UK energy mix is improving, and our adoption of low carbon technologies is beginning to transition.  Decarbonising the grid is an imperative and we are finally starting to talk about the radical reforms required to help bring together generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure. 

If the synergies of nuclear, hydrogen and CCS increasingly become a reality in the UK (emulating some of the announcements in the US recently for 7 regional clean hydrogen hubs) then the integration of delivering major programmes with different technology sets and products needs some fresh thinking in our approach to delivery to avoid spiralling costs and incessant delays. 

As a delivery organisation ISG is determined to bring our capabilities to energy organisations to help deliver complex hyperscale schemes in the energy sector with the same vigour that we see in data centres, advanced manufacturing and process facilities.  Our fresh thinking around delivery models, collaboration, commercial approaches and ‘left shift’ engagement will all helps to bring certainty in delivery to clients striving to achieve our Net Zero ambitions.  Through our innovation, collaboration, and determination, the UK can power its way into a sustainable future, setting an inspiring example for the world to follow.
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