Opinion

Hydrogen as a low carbon fuel: accident analysis points the way to its safe use

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Energy has surely never been more at the forefront of our minds than it is now.


With domestic energy costs rising to such an extreme that the UK government is assisting all UK households with their energy bills, regardless of means, this has never been a more discussed subject. Energy security is also now a subject which we are relatively familiar with. It has been defined as “the uninterrupted process of securing the amount of energy that is needed to sustain people’s lives and daily activities while ensuring its affordability”.

At the same time, and in response to the recommendation from the independent Climate Change Committee, the government has increased its commitment to achieving net zero by 2050 by announcing the new target of a slash in emissions by 78 per cent in comparison to 1990 levels by 2035.

We will need significant amounts of low carbon hydrogen on the system by 2050. Photograph: iStock

The UK Hydrogen Strategy published in August 2021 acknowledges that low carbon hydrogen is essential for achieving net zero. The strategy was long awaited by those in the sector who are ready and waiting to produce low carbon hydrogen and help meet government net zero targets.

The strategy also states that the size of the hydrogen economy in 2050 will depend on a number of factors – including the cost and availability of hydrogen and hydrogen-using technology relative to alternatives, such as electrification, biomass and use of carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS). Nonetheless, there is consensus, from the Climate Change Committee and others, that we will need significant amounts of low carbon hydrogen on the system by 2050. Bearing all this in mind, hydrogen seems clearly on the brink of being a significant feature of our energy lives.

Safety implications around the use and expansion of hydrogen

So, what are some of the unique safety factors around hydrogen and what learning from previous global hydrogen incidents should be utilised in future hydrogen projects, in any sector?

Thankfully for safety professionals, there is a positive desire across those working in the hydrogen market globally to learn lessons from hydrogen-related incidents. There is an absolute plethora of hydrogen safety research and analysis online. One such source is the European Hydrogen Incidents and Accidents Database (HIAD 2.0)3.

Laura White: "It is reassuring to know that safety concerns do not need to be a hindrance to accelerating global hydrogen strategies."

This is a public repository tool collecting systematic data on such incidents and near misses. Amazingly, entries on this database go back to the 1940s and it has captured around 700 global incidents since that time. The lessons learnt from these incidents have already been utilised by the European Hydrogen Safety Panel, which have established safety principles for working with hydrogen.

Hydrogen has already been used for decades in various industries – for example, in chemical processing, fertilisers and aerospace technology. However, the inherent natural properties of hydrogen make it a substance which requires particularly safe management.

It needs to be stored, transported and utilised with specific controls in place to prevent accidents. The general consensus seems to be that some sectors, including heavy transport and aerospace, will not be able to meet ambitious green energy targets by way of electrification only.

The aim of the European Safety Panel’s analysis of the HIAD database is to use the incident information to benefit organisations operating hydrogen production plants, hydrogen refuelling stations and liquid hydrogen terminals. In particular, they aim to assist technical safety engineers, emergency responders and firefighters. The lessons learnt can also be used in risk assessments and training to inform a sound hydrogen safety culture.

The analysis identified six overall cause categories which fell into either system factors – accountable for 75 per cent of incidents – or human factors, which were accountable for 25 per cent of incidents.

The system factors were:

  • System design error – the system itself was not properly designed for the operating conditions or the use of hydrogen
  • Material/manufacturing error – although correct materials were selected they did not behave as expected either due to a fault in the material or manufacturing process
  • Installation error – improper installation or maintenance leading to the malfunction of an otherwise correctly chosen component.

The human factors. The vast majority of incidents were due to a lack of appropriate maintenance and inspection. The key factors were:

  • Job factors – an inadequate working environment to get the job done correctly and safely, for example, workload was too high, there were too many interruptions or the environment was too noisy
  • Individual factors – inadequate skill and competence, and workers over-tired or suffering from medical problems
  • Safety management system factors – poor safety culture, lack of planning, lack of safety systems and lack of coordination of work.

The above are actually very familiar health and safety management principles to anyone working in a high-risk industry sector. The point to remember with hydrogen-related incidents though is that a small number of relatively low-level factors occurring together can quickly lead to a catastrophic event.

Emergency response information and training is crucial

The analysis of the HIAD database also highlights the importance of emergency response information and training. Quick and appropriate action by emergency services can help contain an incident and avert disaster. However, it is essential that effective and appropriate training is delivered in advance. Emergency responders will clearly need to be well equipped enough to effectively respond to such an incident.

Also, it isn’t just the training of emergency responders which requires planning – plant designs also need to take into account the likely mechanisms of the emergency response. For example, adequate drainage on site needs to be included at the planning stage to facilitate firewater drainage. The study found that a lack of this was a long-standing problem at disaster sites.

The familiarity of safety factors in hydrogen for those already working in high-risk industries – coupled with the information sharing and learning culture in the industry – paints a positive future picture for hydrogen safety management.

Health and safety professionals are already very well used to considering system and human factors when safety planning in higher risk scenarios. As I wrote this article Pakistan was experiencing severe flooding and the UN announced that the past eight years are the warmest on record.

Bearing in mind the positive impact a successful hydrogen economy could have to slow down rising global temperatures, it is perhaps reassuring to know that safety concerns do not need to be a hindrance to accelerating global hydrogen strategies.

Laura White is Senior associate at Pinsent Masons LLP

Contact Laura White at: pinsentmasons.com

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