'The biggest prize going': Inside the plans to decarbonise Britain's biggest industrial cluster

Cecilia Keating
clock • 12 min read

The Humber Estuary is the most carbon-intensive stretch of the UK, home to 55,000 jobs and a huge slice of British economic value, but it is also one of the most climate vulnerable regions in the country - BusinessGreen sat down with the people working to turn the region into a world-leading green hub

The oil refineries, power plants, plastic manufacturers, steelworks, and chemicals plants that hug the Humber Estuary have long been a backbone of the British economy, figuratively and literally powering the nation.

And as the UK's economy has transformed in preparation for a less carbon-intensive future, so has the industry around the Humber. In the Port of Grimsby, a previously dilapidated stretch of fishing docks has been turned into a major service and maintenance hub for a growing fleet of gargantuan wind projects in the North Sea. Enormous turbine blades for those farms are manufactured at a Siemens Gamesa plant adjacent to a port that once used to export Yorkshire coal. And further inland, what was once the UK's biggest coal-fired power plant, Drax Power Station, is now largely fuelled by sustainable biomass, following its conversion from using coal to generate electricity, making it Europe's largest decarbonisation project.

But despite these positive and significant transformations, local businesses, trade bodies and politicians are gearing up for a far more radical revolution over the decades to come. That revolution is designed to ensure the UK's most carbon intensive industrial cluster proactively tackles the mammoth task of reducing its emissions in line with the nation's 2050 net zero goal. The decarbonisation of the Humber - which is home to 27 per cent of the UK's oil refinery production, a sizeable chunk of the chemicals industry, and a host of manufacturers and major ports that together contribute £18bn to the UK's economy annually - could be the making or the undoing of the UK's climate goals.

With many of the negative economic and social impacts inflicted by the last major industrial shift still fresh in the memory of many Humber residents, the hope is that the next industrial revolution can avoid the mistakes of the last. With more than 55,000 jobs dependent on manufacturing  in the Humber, it remains to be seen whether workers will be protected as the companies they work for pivot towards cleaner fuels, production processes, and products at the same time as the UK buckles from the biggest labour market crisis in decades in the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic and the looming threat of Brexit and its potential to disrupt the imports and exports that flow through the region.

Developing a Zero-Carbon Cluster

A clutch of the biggest companies' active in the region are betting big on the fact the cluster as a whole can step up to the net zero challenge. Drax Group, Equinor, National Grid Ventures and SSE are among a number of leading companies that have joined forces on a bold plan to decarbonise the Humber Estuary by 2040, 10 years ahead of the UK's overarching net zero goal.  They will help achieve this by combining plans to scale up blue hydrogen production, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, and clean energy capacity.

The plan, dubbed Zero Carbon Humber, will focus on two areas: ramping up significantly  hydrogen production in order to transition heavy industry away from fossil fuels where possible; and installing CCS technology to shuttle any remaining carbon dioxide - from industry or from blue hydrogen production - to permanent storage in the rock under the sea.

The vision could then be taken to the next level to produce negative emissions, by adding CCS to the sustainable biomass used at Drax Power Station the region could become a major contributor to the UK's net zero goals.

A realistic 2020 vision for 2050

The opportunity and challenge are huge in equal measure.  Many of the technologies at the heart of the vision have not yet been commercialised at scale in the UK.

"The Humber is Britain's largest industrial cluster, bar none," explains Al Cook, executive vice president for strategy and business development at Equinor. "So if we can decarbonise the Humber that is the biggest prize going in the UK. There are 55,000 jobs based around the Humber in industries supported by natural gas. Those are great jobs, but they also have to be green jobs."

Equinor, which has long relied on the Humber Estuary as the gateway for its gas imports from Norway, is planning to build Europe's largest blue hydrogen production and carbon capture facility at the Saltend Chemicals Park on the North Humber. The project - which could generate clean hydrogen as soon as 2026 - is among a handful of "anchor projects" expected to unlock the low-carbon infrastructure, in particular carbon capture and storage pipelines, required to kick-start the broader Zero Carbon Humber Project.

"This would be the largest clean hydrogen production facility in the UK and it would be the first large-scale one like this in Europe," Cook says. "It's a big deal... We'd be partnering hydrogen for the first time at an industrial scale together with carbon capture and storage, demonstrating to the world that the UK is at the forefront of the energy transition."  

Equinor's 'Hydrogen to Humber' project is among a number of innovative projects being simultaneously chalked up by major energy companies as part of an integrated plan to drive the region's broader decarbonisation.

Negative emissions at Drax

At Drax Power Station in Selby, North Yorkshire, which provides five per cent of the UK's electricity supply, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) technology is being piloted. The approach takes existing technology and long-established practices from different areas and brings it together, to deliver 'carbon negative' power by 2030.

By deploying BECCS at scale, Drax could become an anchor for the cluster, permanently removing as much as 16 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year, a significant proportion of the 51 million tonnes the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) say are required annually for the UK to reach net zero by 2050.

"BECCS is the only negative emissions technology that can produce the flexible, renewable, electricity millions of homes and businesses rely on while permanently removing CO2 from the atmosphere," says Karl Smyth, head of CCS strategy and engagement at Drax.

"By developing negative emissions and hydrogen production we can enable energy intensive industries to continue to operate against a backdrop of tighter carbon restrictions, preserving jobs in the process," he adds. "As we deal with the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, creating a resilient industrial sector that supports growth, and develops new jobs, skills and apprenticeships will be crucial to our economic recovery. Seizing opportunities in infrastructure, new technology and investment that carbon capture technologies in the North of England can bring will put both the Humber, and the UK at the heart of a global green recovery."

The challenge ahead

The hope is that these projects will catalyse the investment and infrastructure needed to transform the broader region, explains Richard Kendall, executive director of strategy at the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership - the group that is leading a government funding bid to support the Net Zero Humber plans. 

"There are a number of sites all around the Humber where the emissions are of a sufficient size to warrant connecting up to this infrastructure," he says. "The flagship projects will help anchor some of this. Although we've got a dozen or so very large, world leading decarbonisation projects in the Humber at the moment, there are also companies that aren't doing that, which could be." 

Kendall is under no illusions of the size of the challenge that lies ahead. "What sets the Humber apart is the sheer scale of the challenge and opportunity, depending on how you look at it," he reflects. "There's no part of the country that could do more when it comes to decarbonisation - but the other way to look at it is we've got the highest emissions by about 30 per cent."

The region is also particularly vulnerable to escalating climate impacts, given that it has the second highest flood risk in the UK after the Thames Estuary.

Location is key

Thankfully, the Humber's transition plans benefit from a number of key regional advantages. Not only is it adjacent to the most geologically understood carbon storage site in the UK - thanks to studies carried out as part of the White Rose Project that were completed in support of previous proposals to develop carbon capture technology at Drax - it is also close to both the UK's biggest concentration of offshore wind farms and a steady flow of imported natural gas, which can enable the production of green and blue hydrogen, respectively.

But despite the region's many competitive advantages, there is no single net zero solution and the task ahead is undoubtedly going to be onerous and complex, according to Kendall. "There is no silver bullet to decarbonising a region as varied as the Humber Cluster," he says. "You are going to need a lot of solutions that are going to have to come forward at certain period of time and there are all sorts of dependencies to think about."

The results of a feasibility study undertaken this year have underscored the need for a "holistic" approach to decarbonisation, he says, with plans that consider the needs of the region's power and industry plants in tandem.

Creating a policy framework

The government has been clear that it plans to support the decarbonisation of the UK's major industrial hubs.  As a result, it has set aside £170m for its Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge Fund as part of its plans to establish the world's first net zero carbon industrial cluster by 2040.  But it remains to be seen how Ministers intend to divvy up the funds between the UK's major industrial hubs. And delivering on the Zero Carbon Humber plan would require investment that far outstrips the current ISCF pot. Private sector partners are gearing up to dig deep into their own pockets to advance the plans, while applying to a raft of industry-specific decarbonisation competitions and funds as and when they come online. But there is also a general consensus that the government will have to play a more proactive role in supporting the development of the sector.

Both funding and a viable long term policy and regulatory framework will be required to make the Zero Carbon Humber project and its cutting-edge carbon capture and hydrogen proposals a reality, Equinor's Cook emphasises, given that the cost of producing blue hydrogen is currently twice as much as producing natural gas. The cost of producing green hydrogen - hydrogen produced by renewable energy and electrolysis - is expected to fall as renewables costs continue to drop.  But it is currently four times higher compared to natural gas-derived hydrogen. With Equinor willing to put funds into its Hydrogen to Humber project that are unlikely to generate its usual rates of return, the onus also falls on government to invest to get the technology off the ground and help deliver the economies of scale that should help to drive down future costs, he muses.

"We really need the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund process to be successful for Hydogen to Humber," he says. "We need financial support. And if we can work together to do that, then we are confident that - just as we did with wind - we'll bring those costs down and we'll be able to both green and grow the UK's economy." 

Capturing the opportunity in the Humber

While it remains to be seen how the government will distribute the ISCF funds, the Humber Cluster's size, economic importance, and hefty carbon footprint should ensure it is a frontrunner in any competition between industrial clusters. Martin Vickers, Conservative MP for Cleethorpes, suggests the plan should stand a good chance of becoming the government's flagship project. "I am confident that the government will, having committed to the 2040 target for zero on the Humber, be pretty determined to deliver that," he says. "They also recognise, of course, that it fits in with their general strategy of supporting industrial Northern towns."

The MP, who has been making the case for the Humber Cluster alongside five other local MPs in Westminster, reflects there is "clear impetus" from government to advance the project, despite the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis. His own discussions with Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng bode well for the project, he says, as do numerous visits from senior ministers to the region and an op-ed penned by Kwarteng earlier this summer in the Yorkshire Post.

"The renewable energy sector is already providing many new jobs for the local residents and the link with Drax will potentially have a massive impact," Vickers says. "Yorkshire and the Humber is the region with the highest carbon dioxide emissions, which is why the government places so much emphasis on this. If we can - as I'm sure we will - develop Bioenergy and Carbon Capture and Storage at Drax, then that's going to have a massive impact."

The government is set to make a decision this autumn about which of the UK's industrial hubs it plans to progress to the second phase of its Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge, which would go towards delivering more detailed project roadmaps, after six coalitions successfully secured phase one funding for feasibility studies. Only after the two-year competition closes will government allocate the bulk of the funding to support project deployment.

While so much of the government's strategy remains to be finalised, what is clear is that large-scale industrial decarbonisation will ultimately be a collaborative effort between different industrial heartlands across the UK, according to the Humber LEP's Kendall, who notes that plans are already afoot to link up carbon storage infrastructure planned in Teesside with the Humber.

"You can achieve far more by collaborating on this," he reflects. "For the UK to achieve what it has got to achieve with the Paris Agreement, you have to do all the clusters. It's not a case of doing one and waiting and seeing."


This article was produced as part of Drax Group's partnership with the inaugural Net Zero Festival.

The virtual Festival took place over three days from September 30th and you can catch up with all the sessions on-demand here.

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