Partner, A&L Goodbody
Anne Donaghy OBE
Chief executive, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council
Corporate development manager, Energia
Director of energy strategy, Department for the Economy
Ann McGregor MBE
Chief executive, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Editor, Ulster Business
Mark, you are an expert in green energy, and in particular hydrogen. Where are we at with hydrogen technology here in Northern Ireland?
Mark Stockdale: The industry here in Northern Ireland at the moment is still quite small. But it is very much focused on renewable hydrogen and in the pilot stage at the moment. Northern Ireland is already quite advanced compared to other areas. The projects we have are some of the first in the UK and Ireland. While a small industry, Northern Ireland is doing quite well on the renewable side, which makes it very exciting to be involved with it. The EU and other parts of the UK are beginning to take it much more seriously.
Is there scope for businesses or other organisations to get involved and begin to invest in hydrogen production/technology?
Mark Stockdale: I think there is and it’s time for businesses to take hydrogen more seriously. As far as opportunities you have hydrogen production, and also in hydrogen technology, particularly fuel for heavy vehicles, manufacturing and other large energy users.
David, if you can talk to us about the work you are doing at Energia, turning wind power in to green hydrogen, and also, how that will go towards powering Translink’s new hydrogen buses?
David Macartney: Hydrogen has been used in many industries for many years… there is a skillset in Northern Ireland for managing it. Eight years ago I met with Sir William Wright (Wrightbus founder) when he had a couple of R&D people working on hydrogen buses, so this project has had a reasonably long gestation period to get the project progressed.
With Jo Bamford (the new chairman of Wrightbus) coming on board in terms of buying the Wrightbus, it has been tremendous having a global industry which is coming in and pushing forward the potential for exporting hydrogen buses from Northern Ireland.
We got funding for an electrolyser for our wind farm in Co Antrim. The challenge was marrying that up with demand. We were able to progress with Translink marrying up the electrolyser with the (first) three hydrogen buses. There may be opportunities in terms of Brexit. We have a country which is quite small, but has a unique opportunity where it is EU and UK regulations.
Jo, can you tell me a bit about what’s being done by Wrightbus with its hydrogen bus technology and what the interest is at home and in the export market?
Jo Bamford: We were making hydrogen, and then we bought Wrightbus. We now have around 100 buses on order for various places across the UK, and there are a lot of places around the world which are keen to take hydrogen buses off us. We are focusing on getting the products right in our home market.
Hydrogen buses have been around for about 12 years… one of the problems has actually not been the bus, but how the bus has been looked after in the past. They were science experiments in some cases, with no real aftercare or service. So we are putting that in place to look after the buses as soon as they enter service.
We are looking at putting hydrogen production in Northern Ireland. I would be delighted to connect to a wind farm or solar park. I have a real contention, which is NI is actually uniquely positioned, and you can’t afford to be either, or. NI should say ‘we aren’t going to do batteries and we are going to focus on hydrogen’.
Northern Ireland can export into Europe, there are great universities and I think it should really focus on it – there’s a lot of wind and a lot of water, all of the constituent parts.
Anne, how important is hydrogen to the NI economy and how do you see this growing post-Covid?
Anne Donaghy: For me, hydrogen is one of the biggest tools we have in a post-Covid economy. There are huge opportunities in terms of job creation and investment. For the Northern Ireland economy it is critical that we are a world-leader in this. I agree with Jo that it is a time in which we have to push forward and grab the opportunity we now have.
We have written to the Prime Minister to set out the case for Ballymena to be the hydrogen town that he has this vision for. It’s about being a key part of the economy and getting that investment.
I am so pleased the project which Wrightbus, Translink and Energia are working on – the whole circular economy and generating clean, efficient energy.
What are the plans for Mid and East Antrim’s new Hydrogen Training Academy?
Anne Donaghy: I’m hugely excited about it. If you want to have a successful business, you have to have people who are competent. We have become very skilled in being able to reskill people. The idea has come from looking at the future. We know there is going to be huge growth in the sector, so let’s build an academy.
I want a world-renowned academy on hydrogen and I think we have all the key players to do so.
Ann, why is it important for businesses here to embrace greener options and head towards carbon neutrality and can you mention any standout examples?
Ann McGregor: Companies have been interested in the suitability agenda for some time, but it has moved from a passive collection of data to a boardroom item.
The whole policy environment has never been more favourable. The Department for the Economy and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs are committed to this. You can see with Anne, that councils are engaged and starting to help. The need to be carbon neutral is right at the centre of it. Companies have been engaged before now, but it’s becoming a bigger contribution.
Hydrogen has got to be part of the solution, and it is gaining momentum. Companies such as Encirc (Co Fermanagh-based glass manufacturer), they have a big site in Elton in England. They are going to be able to get access to a source of energy by 2024 and are working with a company call HyNet which will be able to store hydrogen for them.
Thomas, what’s the current government focus on green energy, its targets and in particular, interest in pursuing hydrogen?
Thomas Byrne: The key work strand for us in the Department for the Economy is developing a new Energy Strategy for Northern Ireland which is about setting the direction of travel for energy policy.
We have taken an approach which looks at heat, power and transport together. That is a really important part of taking that whole system approach. Hydrogen came through in a number of areas (following a call to evidence). The work that we have done since then, setting up a number of working groups, has been looking at that evidence provided and some of those opportunities around hydrogen.
We see it in a number of areas. There’s the power side of things. We have had real success in renewable electricity. That is a real asset for us in Northern Ireland. In fact, we produce so much renewable energy that it can’t get on the grid. Something like an electrolyser can make the most of what we have.
It’s not just power. There are areas around heavy goods vehicles, buses, air and sea travel. Hydrogen offers up a number of opportunities across these.
Do we need incentives to get private sector companies on board?
Thomas Byrne: I think that is something which we are looking at through the strategy, but government policy will play a key role in driving this.
David Macartney: We should be ambitious with this. Is there something we can do in Northern Ireland as the only devolved nation to reach that 20% of injection of renewable hydrogen into the network.
What impact, if any, will Brexit have on hydrogen production and imports/exports?
Mark Stockdale: It’s fair to say the industry is so small in Northern Ireland that it hasn’t been negatively impacted by Brexit, and the fact that we now have a trade agreement with the EU is very positive.
That covers tariff-free trade on goods generally – that comes down to the origin of the goods. I would have thought that if the hydrogen was created in Northern Ireland, you are looking at a scenario where it can be traded freely within the EU. We are in a unique situation as we have access into the UK market and now potentially into the EU market – if you were going to put a hydrogen production facility anywhere, then Northern Ireland is a good place for it.
Ann McGregor: Ultimately we should be a good spot for (future) investment… we could be a good test case. We all know each other. If someone needs to talk to a minister or a council and wants them to come on board, we can make these things happen.
Anne Donaghy: What we have noticed is that there is a huge increase week-on-week of freight coming from Dublin and Cork and they are using Larne Port and Belfast. The level of traffic is increasing and that can only be good for Northern Ireland.
How realistic is it that we will see homes or businesses being powered by hydrogen?
Jo Bamford: Hydrogen in the heating grid is not something very feasible. The reason you start with buses is because the equivalent price of running a bus on a kilo of hydrogen is about £6.20. The equivalent of running a house is about £1.50 a kilo on hydrogen.
Ultimately, you need the supply chain to cost less to be able to make hydrogen at £1.50 a kilo… there needs to be a production in Northern Ireland, at scale, in the next 12 months, built. I have been pushing to get money to build one in Northern Ireland and bring jobs to Northern Ireland.
Mark, are you getting new enquiries around hydrogen, or expecting to?
Mark Stockdale: A lot of companies are certainly looking at it but I don’t think hydrogen has reached the point where there are serious investment opportunities for companies yet. The EU is considering pumping massive amounts of money into this area so it is certainly something that people should be considering.
Anne Donaghy: In 12 weeks I will have the training academy launched and at this stage we have a list of companies wanting to get in – looking at how they can get involved or how they can make the change themselves.
Thomas Byrne: When we talk about the hydrogen economy it’s about looking at the whole thing holistically, and how we progress this.
Mark Stockdale is a corporate partner in A&L Goodbody’s Belfast office, with a focus and particular expertise in the energy sector. He has extensive experience advising sponsors, lenders and developers on the financing and construction of large scale infrastructure projects, particularly in the natural gas and renewables sectors. He also advises on the acquisition and sale of large scale infrastructure projects, complex contracts and on joint ventures within the infrastructure sector. In addition, Mark is one of the leading experts on energy regulation in Northern Ireland.
He can be contacted at [email protected]