Here’s why hydrogen is key to global energy transition | Jan Egil Brændeland
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Jan Egil Braendeland - hydrogen

Hydrogen is the future of global energy transition – here’s why

Global energy sector leader Jan Egil Brændeland explores the growth of hydrogen-powered tech and how it could accelerate energy transition.

Clean hydrogen, also known as Green Hydrogen or Renewable Hydrogen,is undergoing a period of considerable momentum, both in terms of politics and business. There is also talk about Red Hydrogen which means negative CO2 emissions by use of direct air capture technology.

According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) landmark report on the future development of hydrogen, the number of projects, policies and business deals are expanding quickly around the world. The report recommends that right now is the time to invest in technologies to speed up development and reduce costs.

How does hydrogen produce energy and power?

Energy produced using hydrogen goes back a long way. Hydrogen powered the very first internal combustion engines more than two centuries ago. It went on to play an important and central role in the modern refining industry.

Hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen atoms to produce electricity. It works by the hydrogen reacting with oxygen within an electrochemical cell to produce water, electricity and heat. The cell is similar to a battery. There are lots of different types of fuel cells that can be used in different ways.

For example, small hydrogen powered fuel cells can power computers, military applications and mobile phones. Bigger fuel cells provide electricity for places that aren’t connected to the grid.

NASA has relied upon liquid hydrogen as rocket fuel to deliver crew and cargo to the Space Station for decades and Transport for London announced the introduction of hydrogen powered double-decker buses in 2019.

What are the benefits of hydrogen produced energy?

Hydrogen is energy-dense, easy to store and, most significantly, clean. It produces zero emissions of greenhouse gases or pollutants. But it’s not used across enough industries and by enough companies yet to make significant inroads into energy transition. For example, it’s not used at all across major sectors such as mass power generation, construction or transport.

However, the tide on hydrogen is turning and the world is waking up to how hydrogen can help the world transition towards affordable and clean energy. Since 1975, demand for hydrogen has tripled and continues to rise. And the supply of hydrogen to industrial businesses is a growing business sector. While this sounds positive, the hydrogen produced around the world is responsible for 2% of global coal and 6% of global natural gas usage in the production of the fuel. This means that producing hydrogen is responsible for the carbon dioxide emissions of countries the size of Indonesia and the UK combined.

The number of countries beginning to focus on hydrogen technology is increasing, with most concentrating on transport initially. As hydrogen can be extracted from water and from biomass and fossil fuels, the production methods vary. Natural gas is, at the moment, the main source of producing hydrogen and accounts for at least 6% of its global use.

Coal comes next as a source for hydrogen production, mostly because of its dominance in China. Less than 1% of dedicated global hydrogen production is from water electrolysis. However, as renewable electricity is becoming cheaper, particularly from solar and wind, electrolytic hydrogen is growing in popularity. Using electricity from renewables is a viable alternative for hydrogen production to using grid electricity.

There are a lot of green hydrogen projects planned in Europe and one example is the NortH2 wind to hydrogen project planned by Shell, Gasunie, Groningen Seaports, RWE and Equinor where the ultimate aim is to make a big contribution to European Union´s climate targest for 2030 and beyond.

Where could hydrogen power be used?

Hydrogen use is still dominated by industry. This means sectors including steel production and oil refining. Almost all of the hydrogen used for this is still supplied using natural gas and coal, which means there is huge potential to reduce emissions from clean hydrogen. Other sectors that could use clean hydrogen include:

  • Transport – cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells represents a sector with massive potential, It would need competitive prices and an infrastructure of refuelling points. Aviation and shipping also offer an opportunity for fuels based on hydrogen, as there are few workable low-carbon fuel options available to them.
  • Buildings – hydrogen could be introduced into natural gas networks across housing and commercial buildings. This could work in dense cities, and long-term possibilities include directly using hydrogen in the home using fuel cells or hydrogen boilers.
  • Generating power – hydrogen is one of the front-runners for the storage of renewable energy.

Benefits of hydrogen energy use

So, while hydrogen is used extensively right now across some industries, it’s nowhere near reaching its potential for transitioning to clean energy. Action is needed to reduce costs and overcome any challenges and barriers precluding this. Here’s why the IEA says Governments around the world need to jump on the possibilities of hydrogen:

  1. Practical decarbonisation – hydrogen offers different ways to reach decarbonisation of entire sectors. This includes chemicals, steel iron and long-haul transport. All of these areas present significant challenges to authorities trying to truly reduce emissions.
  2. Improvement of air quality – in a world battered by a pandemic that affects the lungs, air quality has never been more important. And it’s a real problem in cities around the world.
  3. Versatile use – improving technology means hydrogen can be used to store, move, produce and use energy in a number of different ways. Producing hydrogen does not have to use fossil fuels, as it can also be produced from nuclear and renewable energy.
  4. Simple fuel transportation – hydrogen can be transported as a gas using pipelines or stored in a liquid form – like liquified natural gas (LNG). Hydrogen based fuels can move renewable energy from regions with lots of wind and solar resources (for example, Australia) for use in cities thousands of miles away.
  5. Provides clean electricity – to power homes and industry and as fuel for ships, planes, cars, trucks and every other vehicle.
  6. Boosting renewables – hydrogen can be used to get even more from renewables, including wind and solar. It’s one of the best options to store energy generated from renewables at a lower cost.

Challenges must be overcome to unleash the potential of hydrogen

Widespread use of clean hydrogen could be the key to global energy transition, but to achieve this much more must be done to tackle the challenges in the way. For example, hydrogen production from low-carbon, green energy is expensive. By 2030, the IEA says the cost could fall by 30% due to declining costs of renewables. If this is combined with more hydrogen production, costs could be driven down. This means mass manufacturing of refuelling equipment, fuel cells and electrolysers.

Hydrogen infrastructure must be developed faster. At the moment, it’s severely impairing widespread adoption. The infrastructure must be in place to drive the costs down for the consumer, which will need collaborative planning.

As hydrogen is supplied from coal and natural gas, this is pumping out massive amounts of carbon. And this means that there must be much bigger supplies of hydrogen produced from clean electricity, on a scale to rival the that created from fossil fuels. Industry and Government are limiting the developing of a truly clean hydrogen industry, and this must change. International standards will open up investment and development.

Here’s how the IEA thinks this should work:

  1. Industrial ports should be central to scaling up the use of clean hydrogen.
  2. Existing infrastructure should be built on – for example, the millions of kilometres of existing natural gas pipelines.
  3. Expand hydrogen across transport through freight and trade corridors.
  4. Launch international shipping routes for the hydrogen trade.
  5. National and regional governments should guide the future by establishing a role for hydrogen in long-term strategies for energy production.
  6. Drive the costs down of clean hydrogen technology through policies.
  7. Scale up supply chains as these investments will drive costs down.
  8. Support investment in new applications and uses for hydrogen.
  9. Eliminate regulatory impediments and create international standards.

The future of energy is hydrogen, but there is a lot of work to do on a global scale to make this a reality.