The Humber, an industrial area in the north of England, is poised to spearhead the UK’s green transition. With streams of capital investment flooding in, Equinor and a raft of other companies, including Drax, British Steel and Mitsubishi Power, plan to transform one of the biggest carbon-emitting zones into a zero-carbon cluster. 

Equinor’s project H2H Saltend is the first step to launch such an ambitious enterprise. It looks to switch the fuel supply to the Saltend Chemicals Park from fossil fuels to low-carbon hydrogen. At present, the park produces millions of tonnes of petrochemicals per year for products such as clothing, paint, pharmaceuticals and packaging. The Norwegian company estimates that by upgrading to hydrogen at scale, it can reduce carbon emissions from Saltend Chemicals Park by nearly 900,000 tonnes per year.

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Blue transition

Central to this transition is the construction of an autothermal reformer (ATR) of 600MW, which will produce ‘blue’ hydrogen — hydrogen produced from natural gas — for the existing gas-fired power station. Across the site, industrial consumers will be able to share in this new blue infrastructure.

Excess carbon dioxide from the production of hydrogen is set to be captured and transported via a pipeline to Easington (a town on the tip of the estuary), where it can then be taken offshore to be stored under the seabed. These storage facilities are part of a broader partnership between BP, Eni, Equinor, National Grid, Shell and Total, called the Northern Endurance Partnership, which supports a similar net-zero project further along the coast in Teesside. 

As the UK’s largest industrial cluster, the Humber is responsible for more than one-third of the emissions from the country’s six largest industrial clusters. With the end goal of transforming the area into net zero emitter, H2H Saltend’s focus on blue hydrogen and carbon capture and storage is thought to be the tip of a zero-carbon iceberg.  

Henrik Andersen, Equinor’s vice president of low-carbon solutions, says that there is a “suite of potential projects” set to be in operation by the mid 2020s, such as Drax’s plans to install carbon-capture technology to create the world’s first carbon-negative power station by 2027.

Unique position

Unlike other heavy industrial areas which tend to be further inland, such as those in Germany, the Humber is unique. It is both a diverse and relatively dense industrial cluster with local expertise, but also its position on the North Sea means its hydrogen transition can also be powered by offshore wind — or ‘green’ hydrogen. 

“We believe that this is a very good area to grow green hydrogen businesses,” Mr Andersen adds, alluding to both the offshore wind infrastructure and the nearby salt caverns which can be used to store hydrogen. 

Richard Kendall, executive director at the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), points out that there is a lot of excitement for the H2H Saltend project and zero-carbon cluster more broadly, thanks to the success of offshore wind in the area. 

“I think the wider impact [of the zero-carbon cluster plan] on our community is a repeat of what we’ve seen with wind, where it has really captured the public’s imagination,” Mr Kendall says. “The key test at the end of all of this is going to be how much of this massive capital investment translates into local jobs and supply chain opportunities that are sustainable.”