Patrick Robinson, Hydrogen Project Planning Specialist, Burges Salmon
Hello and welcome to Burges Salmon's Net Zero podcast. I'm Patrick Robinson, hydrogen project planning specialist at Burges Salmon and in this episode we'll be discussing environmental and water issues in hydrogen consenting.
I'm delighted to be joined today by Mike Barlow, head of our environment team, leads our cross-firm water practice and also Sarah Sackville-Hamilton, senior associate in the environment team. Mike has more than 20 years' experience in environmental regulatory matters, advises a number of water company clients on environmental and regulatory matters. And Sarah is a key member of our Net Zero services team.
Mike, Sarah thank you for joining us today.
Mike Barlow, Head of Environment, Burges Salmon
My pleasure, great to be here.
Sarah Sackville-Hamilton, Senior Associate, Burges Salmon
Yes, pleasure Patrick.
So Mike, what are the water issues that can arise in new hydrogen projects and at what stages do they arise?
Well thanks Patrick. I think it's worth just standing back at the start of this and thinking about the overall question of water and its availability and its quality and I think we often don't think about this too much, but water is a finite resource, we know it's under pressure. We saw last year the droughts and so on, so there's a lack of availability of water and climate change's meaning that's happening more often and that also leads to impacts on water quality.
You've also got population growth, you've got growth in industrial requirements and so on and what that does mean then is that there is a competition in a sense for that available water and then you've got a regulatory piece on the outside to try and manage that, so that's an overall framework if you like, and so if you're thinking about a hydrogen project and you've got a water requirement, which we'll come on to discuss in a minute, and that is going to be considered by the regulators within those constraints and it's going to need to be dealt with.
So you're going to be needing to look at it both at the planning stage and at the environmental permitting stage because both of those stages could well and probably will want to address water issues as one of the important issues as that part of regulation.
Okay thanks. Obviously if we're talking about water shortage, water stress, quantities are going to be important. Sarah what sort of quantities of water are we talking about with hydrogen production?
The short answer Patrick is that depends both on the hydrogen production technology and also on the water source, but if we take green hydrogen and electrolysis as an example, the data I've seen suggests that if potable water is used as the production source then you're going to need 20 litres of water for each kilogram of hydrogen produced, and of those 20 litres, 10 will be consumed during the production process and the remaining 10 will be returned as waste water post-production. We've also seen that 20 litre figure cited where waste water is the water source, so similar volumes at stake. If you've got different qualities or compositions of water, then those quantities are going to change, for example if you're using demineralised water then the amount of water you're going to need will be a bit lower, whereas in the other direction if you're using saline water then it'll be a bit higher.
What I would say as well is that regardless of the type of water that you're using directly in hydrogen production, you also have to factor in the extra water you're going to need for cooling purposes and we've seen figures in the region of 60 cubic meters an hour on that side.
So overall significant volume of water is needed and in this supply availability context that Mike just described, what this means is that water availability can be a real limiting factor and particularly in water constrained areas it could be a primary limiting factor.
Okay, it's all getting quite techy this, let's not forget we're lawyers, what are the legal issues that are tied up with water use in hydrogen? Sarah, do you want to kick us off?
Yes, very happy to start there. And, as with my last response, it depends on where the water supply is coming from, if it's from surface water or groundwater then from a legal perspective it would have to be covered by an abstraction license granted by the environment agency in England or the relevant environmental regulator in other parts of the UK. The EA's got statutory duties to protect and enhance the environment and in a water context this means that they've got duties to safeguard water resources and to make sure that abstractions from surface and groundwater don't damage the environment. These duties are going to inform the considerations that the EA take into account before they grant an abstraction license and also the conditions that they're going to attach to that license once granted.
So in practice this is going to mean that abstraction licenses will be subject to time limits and to volumetric limits on the amount of water that a license holder can abstract. Increasingly what we're seeing in other sectors and we would expect to be replicated in the hydrogen sector, are conditions called hands-off flow conditions, which mean that if the flow in the relevant river or other water source drops below a particular level then the person taking the abstraction has to reduce or stop the abstraction.
That I think covers the piece where you've got water coming from a groundwater or surface water source, another key one to think about for hydrogen is where the water supply is coming from a water undertaker. Mike are you happy to comment on that aspect?
Yes thanks Sarah, I'll pick that up and that throws up a number of issues really and certainly we've seen, and all of the projects that we've been aware of, have always had a supply of water from the water undertaker and sometimes that's the whole supply sometimes that supplements the supplies that you've been talking about Sarah.
And obviously water undertakers are under their own duties in relation to water, they have what's called a public supply duty, so they have to make sure that they've got enough water to supply domestic customers and there's a whole series of regulation around that, they have to produce what's called Water Resource Management plans every five years to assess how much water they need and they look at that over a 25-year period and those have to be renewed annually and certainly from some of the Water Resource Management plans we've seen recently, they haven't taken into account things like an increase in hydrogen development and leading to increased supplies there, so it's important that that's put on their radar.
You also have Water Resource planning at a regional level. We've seen a bit more of a mixed response in relation to that. Some take into account developments such as hydrogen projects but not all of them. So there's a big constraint around water undertakers and as you were mentioning in relation to abstraction licensing, because water undertakers take water as well using abstraction licenses, the EA's putting increasing pressure on water undertakers to look at those water supplies and where they can make savings in relation to water, so increasing pressure on them as well in relation to licenses.
Okay we're talking about water and how it can be conserved, how you can minimise the usage of it, but one question is you've said already about hydrogen electrolysers and wastewater, that's the water coming out of the electrolyser, how can that be used or how does that have to be managed?
So yes, the waste water has its own regulatory regimes as well in relation to that and there are a number of options once it's come off the plant.
Two basic options really, one is can it be discharged back into the environment and it would have to be high quality if that's going to happen and I think it's worth thinking about if you're just looking at water through it's been through an electrolyser that is going to probably be a fairly high quality, it's not going to contain pollutants in the way that we normally think of waste water coming out of industrial processes, so if it's that type of water then there's a possibility of putting it back into the environment, but you would need to get a discharge consent from the environment agency to do that and that's usually wrapped into the environmental permit and needs to form part of those discussions with the agency. There may be conditions put on it in relation to maybe heat load or whatever, but it's going to depend very much on what's coming out and where it's going, so there's going to be specific considerations in relation to that. And it could possibly be discharged into the sewer, but to do that you need to get what's called a trade effluent consent from the water company and they've got various considerations to take into play, into account, because they're going to have their own environmental permits at their wastewater treatment plants and conditions as to what can go into the environment from those and they'll be taking waste water from a whole series of different sources.
So they need to think about all of that in combination as to whether they will grant the trade effluent consent and they have no duty to take it so there's going to have to be engagement with the water undertakers at that point to see whether a trade affluent consent can be granted.
Okay well look you've both talked about conditions a number of times, so without recapping on the ones we've already commented on, Sarah are there any more conditions that might be imposed on authorities to use these types of water?
Yes, it's a really interesting area, conditions, and yes Mike's touched on and I won't recap on the big ones around waste and discharges and making sure the environment agency's meeting it's no deterioration policy, in terms of extra conditions I think a big one is going to be water efficiency.
At the application stage the EA will have required perm applicants to think about and demonstrate they've thought about ways to minimise water use and to segregate and secure the water that they need for the process with the lowest possible reliance on natural water sources. The successful projects we would expect to be those that are flexible and can incorporate multiple water sources into their design and operating approach for example looking at transfers between different regions and catchment areas looking at on-site storage and resilience options and all of that stuff that a project is saying about it itself to get the EA comfortable is likely to track through to conditions that are attached to the permit once granted.
The other point I'd make around permit conditions is that there's an implied condition on all environmental permits for the operator to use best available techniques or bat for the sector, there isn't at the moment about reference document for hydrogen but we know that it's being developed and we're expecting that to include detail on bat for water efficiency and use, so it'll be really interesting to see what that reference document says once it's been published I think that will be some really valuable insight for the sector in how to how to move forward and what to expect from permits and how to ensure in project design that it's being put on the best foot for achieving a permit in due course.
And I think it's very worth saying Sarah, isn't it, that there is an opportunity to feed into that that reference document with the environment agency if anyone has particular concerns, because I know the environment agency are looking for engagement with industry to really understand the processes and the risks and so on and I think engagement at that stage is definitely going to be beneficial in the long run.
Sarah, Mike look we're going to have to round it up there I think but thanks very much for sharing your thoughts today and some really good insights I think into managing what's going to be an obviously quite an important issue for a hydrogen project.
A couple of takeaways from it, points I was listening out for, there's clearly no simple single water solution available across all sites, across the whole country is going to very much be reactive to the individual circumstances there and also that it could well be multiple solutions that actually make a project work and to give the person who said resilience to it and that means multiple engineering solutions and that means getting them early because you don't want to be trying to refit all this late in the consenting process just to try and meet consenting requirements.
Before everyone goes, just a couple of points for people to listen out for, firstly the Burges Salmon Net Zero consenting hydrogen project report, you'll find it on the website, some really good feedback from developers, local authorities, regulators, looking at hydrogen projects at the moment in real time, what the stats are and the issues that are being come up against there and also look out for the renewable UK planning for green hydrogen report coming out soon, an in-depth look at consenting requirements and obstacles and recommendations for getting around them both in the planning and permitting side, and that's all from us thanks.
Thank you for listening to the Burges Salmon Net Zero podcast. If you'd like to know more about our Net Zero team, how our experts can work with you, you can contact me or any of the team via our website.