The cost of curtailment at UK wind farms is currently £1bn a year, and this could triple by the end of this decade. But could the UK use that wasted wind power to support growth in the nascent green hydrogen sector?
Symbiotic relationships are among the most interesting in nature. When a bird like an egret sits on a hippo, they get an easy meal by eating parasites off the hippo’s back while the hippo benefits from the removal of potentially harmful parasites.
We may see a similar symbiotic relationship in the UK energy sector. By 2030, the UK Government has pledged to roll out 10GW of low-carbon hydrogen production and also grow installed UK offshore wind capacity to 50GW. But there are issues with both of the technologies that they may need the other to fix.
UK think tank Policy Exchange looked at these challenges in the report ‘Turning Wasted Wind into Clean Hydrogen’ that it published on Wednesday 17th January.
For offshore wind, it highlighted the growing challenge of curtailment: UK offshore wind capacity grew from under 1GW in 2009 to almost 14GW in 2022 according to RenewableUK, but investment in the grid hasn’t kept pace. This challenge will be exacerbated in the coming years as offshore wind keeps growing and onshore wind growth in the UK picks up too, particularly in Scotland.
As a result, Policy Exchange said curtailment now costs UK energy users £1bn a year, and this is set to reach £3.5bn annually. Figures like these are often used to beat the wind sector and the politicians that support it — but not this time. Rather, this report highlights that excess wind power could instead be used to help unlock investment in the nascent UK green hydrogen sector, where production needs to grow to encourage firms to invest in supporting infrastructure and growing the end uses for hydrogen. This is currently one of green hydrogen’s biggest hurdles.
The report argued there is little incentive for wind farm owners to make better use of their curtailed wind power because the Contracts for Difference (CfD) regime pays in full for the power, even if it cannot be exported to the grid due to curtailment. But it said this curtailed power could have a major impact in helping green hydrogen.
The analysis, produced by LCP Delta, reported that wind energy curtailed in 2022 would have been enough to produce at least 118,000 tonnes of green hydrogen, and this could rise to 455,000 tonnes annually by 2029. There is currently around 700,000 tonnes of hydrogen used in the UK annually, of which the vast majority is produced from fossil fuels, so creating hydrogen from wind power that would have otherwise been curtailed is a great idea. Its analysis said this would be enough to decarbonise the UK steel industry; meet more than 90% of the UK’s 2030 target for sustainable aviation fuel; and deliver two-thirds of the UK electrolyser target.
We discussed UK support for green hydrogen, and the results of its recent green hydrogen tender, at the first 2024 meeting of our Power-to-X Leadership Council in London on 10th January. This showed that there are strong ambitions to grow green hydrogen production in the UK, but they should be backed by policies.
The Policy Exchange’s report also made seven recommendations that could help strengthen the links between UK wind and green hydrogen production, and which may inform debate about energy policy ahead of this year’s election. They are:
The UK has great ambitions for offshore wind and green hydrogen. But if it is to deliver both, it should look to foster a symbiotic relationship that uses the strength of each sector to help mitigate the challenges of the other.