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The Hydrogen Sonata

In 1858 ‘Colonel’ Edwin Drake became the first American to strike oil in the state of Pennsylvania, kicking off the most significant energy revolution in history and the start of the petrochemical age.

Growth went exponential as money, people and innovation flooded the new market; production grew to 450,000 barrels by 1860 and onwards to 3 million barrels by 1862. For the first time in history, broad swathes of humanity had true energy abundance as the price per barrel crashed from $10/barrel to $0.10/barrel over the same period, making lighting and heating oil affordable to most Americans.

Energy abundance spread to every corner of the globe over the subsequent decades as innovation and investments in infrastructure distributed what was considered a “miracle liquid” to cities and farms the world over. The first long-distance pipeline (110 miles) was built in Pennsylvania in 1879. By 1884, more than 10,000 miles of pipeline crisscrossed the United States and by 1907, it was said that oil pipelines had “a girdle around the world, twice over”.

Today, we live in a world dominated by both the progress enabled by this revolution and the increasingly deadly consequences of it. There is no question now that humanity must leave the petrochemical age behind for the sunny uplands of carbon net-zero energy production.

Humanity requires a new revolution to deliver energy abundance, we can no longer afford the petty squabbles over proven, safe technologies that can unquestionably replace the use of petrochemicals. Electrification and renewable power generation are undoubtedly at the core of this new age, but it will not be the silver bullet solution replacing every single carbon-emitting process on its own!

Delivering carbon net-zero energy abundance in time to respond to climate change will only be delivered by utilising all available technologies from wind and solar, to nuclear and hydrogen.

Delivering Transformative Infrastructure

Blue and green hydrogen technology brings the opportunity to slash the carbon emissions of use cases currently dominated by Natural Gas. From heating homes to industrial ammonia production, it can replace natural gas on a close and even like-for-like basis. But to achieve this in time we require an infrastructure revolution as dramatic as 1880s Pennsylvania.

23 million households in the UK currently use natural gas boilers for heating, supplied by 174,000 miles* of pipelines crisscrossing the country. Converting the whole residential network to hydrogen could bring a direct reduction in UK carbon emissions of 17%** by 2035 which would make up over 20% of the UK Government’s total global Net-Zero commitment.

Achieving this requires vast investments ranging from scaling blue and green hydrogen production to transforming the UK’s pipeline network, to adapting millions of boilers within our homes.

With an existing pipeline network seven times in length the circumference of Earth and 2030 climate goals on the horizon, the UK must innovate and invest in new ways of working to radically accelerate the conversion of existing and the development of new pipelines.

Whilst much of the ‘bare metal’ of existing pipelines is planned to be retained, converting from natural gas to hydrogen will require new technologies to pump, monitor and deliver hydrogen safely at scale. From planning permission to environmental assessment, to operational regulation developers, operators and regulators will have to collaborate closely to help deliver the UK’s 2030 climate objectives.

Remote First Analysis

With 174,000 miles of existing pipelines to understand and prioritise for conversion developers, operators and regulators must make better use of remote data collection and analysis.

Using modern technology and data-sets desk studies can provide far more value than is traditionally assumed. Improvements such as integrating data sets such as the National Underground Asset Register (NUAR) or using LIDAR carrying drones to review existing routes could radically improve delivery teams' productivity.

Investments should be made in collaborative platforms to improve communication between developers, operators and regulators including secure access to real-time data and analysis. Decision makers will be under the dual pressures of the need for speed whilst assuming accountability for decisions within a fractious planning permission process; correctly used collaborative technology is the gold bullet for giving them the confidence in making the right decisions for the long term.

Iterative Data, Iterative Learning

With such a large challenge ahead, it will be impossible to have all the data collected, available and analysed before decisions are made. Developers, operators and regulators will need to take an iterative approach, being comfortable with ambiguity and change as validated data gradually becomes available.

Following data and information management best practices will be critical for success, including using secure centralised data infrastructure operated by qualified staff. Whilst a data schema covering such a large asset base is almost unimaginably large, technologies such as machine learning are available and in use across the construction sector. These could generate insights and actions to support the delivery teams remaining on time and within budget.

Multiple paths, multiple opportunities

With much of the UK’s natural gas infrastructure first developed between 1960 and 1980, asset operators need to understand how their ageing pipelines would integrate into a new hydrogen model. Will every pipeline still be required? Which should be prioritised? How has the customer base changed since an existing asset was developed?

Developers and asset owners should view the existing network as their base case for conversion, but also consider how new technologies and new routes could improve the capacity or operational performance of the new network. Technology now exists for swift side-by-side analysis of existing routes and new opportunities to identify better outcomes at a lower cost.

In the current political climate of frequent legal challenges, such consideration and documentation of alternative options will provide regulators with assurance in the quality of submitted plans and public stakeholders with satisfaction in the technical elements when faced side-by-side with documented alternatives.

Radical change, Professionally delivered

Whilst increasingly under pressure, the oil industry improved the quality of life of hundreds of millions of people globally through affordable lighting, heating and eventually transportation. The story of its rapid growth whilst undoubtedly the cause of significant environmental and climatic issues is also one of vision, innovation and investment.

To respond to the climate emergency, humanity needs to recapture this spirit, imagine a world of clean energy abundance and set our goals, not on the basis of marginal change to an existing system, but radical change delivered at the cadence of our forebears who challenged their teams to transform the world within their lifetimes.

We have the vision, the technology and the people.

Let's make it happen.

About Continuum Industries

Continuum Industries is a provider of an AI-powered infrastructure development platform, Optioneer, that enables power, utility and renewables companies to instantly visualise, analyse and comprehensively assess routing options for power lines, cables and pipelines.

By incorporating all environmental constraints into the development process from the very beginning and considering them together with social, engineering and cost criteria, Optioneer bridges the gap between existing routing procedures and the pace at which project development needs to happen to meet Net Zero targets.


* https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421513003625

** https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5802/cmselect/cmbeis/1038/report.html

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