Norwegian energy giant Equinor has announced a plan to build Europe’s first large-scale blue hydrogen facility in northeast England by 2026, “subject to supportive UK policy”.

The 600MW Hydrogen to Humber Saltend (H2H Saltend) project will produce 125,000 tonnes per year of low-carbon H2 from natural gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS) — and will be the world’s first commercial-scale blue-hydrogen facility to use the autothermal reforming (ATR) process.

The ATR production method produces a steadier stream of CO2 than the standard steam methane reformation (SMR) process, allowing about 95% of its carbon emissions to be captured and stored, compared to the 80% achievable with SMR.

There are currently two operational facilities that produce blue hydrogen from natural gas with CCS — namely Shell’s Quest plant in Alberta, Canada, and Air Products’ set-up at the Valero Port Arthur Refinery in Texas — both of which use the SMR process. H2H Saltend will produce 360 tonnes of blue hydrogen per day, compared to 900 tonnes at Quest and 500 at the Valero refinery.

Equinor’s project, located at the Saltend Chemicals Park in Hull, will be part of the Zero Carbon Humber (ZCH) alliance’s application for public funding from the UK government's Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which was launched in June. The ZCH alliance — consisting of Equinor, Drax Group and National Grid — describes itself as “a partnership to build the world's first zero-carbon industrial cluster and decarbonise the North of England”.

The decision to use low-carbon blue hydrogen at the site, rather than zero-carbon green H2 produced from renewable energy and water electrolysis, might therefore raise a few eyebrows.

Equinor has not revealed how much the H2H Saltend facility would cost to build or the possible cost of the blue hydrogen, but does reveal that the captured CO2 will be transported via pipeline to a storage site in the North Sea.

More than 95% of the 9.8 million tonnes of hydrogen produced annually in Europe today is “grey” — produced from natural gas (or coal) without CCS. According to Bloomberg NEF, CCS adds about $0.40-0.60 to the cost of each kilogram of hydrogen produced, so blue H2 will never be cost-competitive with grey without some kind of government intervention — such as subsidies or a high carbon price. Both the European Commission and Germany have mooted national carbon contracts for difference (CCfD) tenders that would pay green and blue hydrogen a guaranteed amount for avoiding CO2 emissions, but this has not yet been proposed in the UK.

“With private and public investment and supportive UK policy, the H2H Saltend project will demonstrate the potential of these technologies,” said Irene Rummelhoff, executive vice president for marketing, midstream and processing at Equinor.

“Together we can make the Humber and the UK a world-leading example that others can learn from.”

Equinor said it will take a final investment decision on H2H Saltend in 2023.

In the initial phase of the project, local industrial customers will be able to switch to pure hydrogen, and the onsite 1.2GW natural-gas-fired power plant will be able to move to a blend of 30% hydrogen and 70% methane, Equinor said.

In later phases, H2H Saltend could expand to serve other industrial users across the Humber and pave the way for a large-scale network for both blue and green hydrogen, as well as infrastructure for transporting and storing captured CO2 emissions.

In 2018, Equinor, Northern Gas Networks and Cadent, published the H21 North of England report showing how blue hydrogen could be produced and supplied to millions of homes and business across the north of England.

Equinor is also a partner in the Net Zero Teesside development, which proposes to build a new-build gas-fired power station with carbon capture, and extending the CCS infrastructure to the neighbouring industrial cluster.

In May, Equinor and its partners took a final investment decision on Northern Lights, Europe’s first commercial-scale CCS project off Norway, which could be operational by 2024.

Recharge is hosting a free-to-attend high-level digital roundtable on 9 July entitled Blue vs Green – the Future of Hydrogen. To register for the event, please click here.