Three reasons why hydrogen is finally having its moment, and three holding it back
By Manuel Kuehn
The universe’s most abundant element has long been touted as a potential emissions-free energy savior. Industrial applications of hydrogen are quite old: the first hydrogen-powered car was invented in 1807 and industrial synthesis of the element began in 1888. Even the state-of the art technology to produce green hydrogen, though ‘proton exchange membrane’ (PEM) electrolysis, was discovered in the 1970s.
After a few waves of enthusiasm for green hydrogen in the 1970s, 1980s and 2000s that fizzled, it seems that this newfound optimism is different, and hydrogen is finally going to have its moment.
Here are three reasons why:
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1. Emissions-free electricity power prices have plummeted.
With solar and wind power on par or, in sun-rich regions, significantly cheaper than electricity based on fossil fuels, the prices for green hydrogen from electrolysis are trending toward striking distance of grey hydrogen, which is produced using hydrocarbons and isn’t an improvement to conventional fuels when it comes to CO2 emissions.
2. Climate change isn’t a nice thing to address, it’s an imperative.
We need answers, and we need them fast! People and investors are challenging regulators and companies to combat climate change. More corporations have aggressive decarbonization targets and expanding renewable power generation alone will not do the trick. There’s no sun at night, and the output of windfarms is volatile. Green hydrogen can expand the contribution of renewables. It can be stored for longer periods, it can be transported to places that can’t generate renewable power, and it can be used by a wide range of sectors.
3. Hydrogen can decarbonize more sectors than other renewables.
Currently, 40% of global CO2 emissions originate from power production, but that figure will decline as renewable energy continues to grow. Other sectors, like industry and transportation, contribute 55% of global CO2 emissions, use a much lower percentage of renewables than power plants because wind and solar have limited direct applications. Green hydrogen and other products derived from it present possibilities to decarbonize these sectors too.
Before we get to the obstacles, I will quickly explain how green hydrogen works.
Electricity generated by renewables feeds a PEM electrolyzer that splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The H2 gas can be stored, easily transported, and used in many sectors. Hydrogen can be used in industrial processes, like steel making, converted to ammonia for fertilizer production, or to produce synthetic (green) fuels like e-kerosene. It can be fuel for cars, trucks, buses and ships, and blended with natural gas to fire existing infrastructure with few adjustments.
Other than electricity, electrolysis only requires water in amounts that are, for industrial applications, relatively small: 1 kg hydrogen needs stoichiometrically 9 liters water, while the energy content of 1 kg hydrogen amounts for 39.4 kWh. This makes the so-called “island solution” feasible. An island or remote area that has sun or wind and water can be powered 24/7, emission free, with just renewable energy, an electrolyzer and an industrial engine that burns hydrogen.
So, if green hydrogen is so great, why don't we see it everywhere?
1. It's expensive.
I mentioned before that you can get into striking distance to grey hydrogen. However, in most (but not all) cases, it’s just that – close. This gap is fine for pilot plants and proving the concept, but if you scale the application you scale the gap. We need to spend more efforts to find the projects that work, today.
2. It's disruptive.
There needs to be a great deal of collaboration in industries that have a high barrier to entry. Power producers must think like, or work closely with, bus and fleet owners, and producers of grey hydrogen must find an alternative for their output. The emergence of green hydrogen puts many stakeholders into a tight spot. They must decide what role they want to play, what consequences that may have for their business, whom they shall partner with. These are all thorny issues.
3. It needs more government cheerleaders.
There are many municipalities and governments pushing green hydrogen, but more must be done. Policymakers should expedite the needed changes to regulatory frameworks and boost decarbonization targets by levying a significant tax on C02 emissions or raising C02 certificate prices.
Even with these impediments, the most recent forecasts demonstrate that the prospects for green hydrogen are no longer hypothetical. According to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, hydrogen production is expected to consume 16% of global electricity production by 2050 and provide 8% of the world’s energy supply.
We at the Siemens are the forefront of this push. The Siemens Silyzer 200, our PEM-based electrolysis system, is installed in five facilities in Germany, Australia, Sweden, and will soon be commissioned in Dubai. The pilot project in the United Arab Emirates, in partnership with Dubai Electricity and Water Authority and Dubai Expo 2020, will be the first industrial scale electrolyzer in the Middle East that’s fed with 100% renewable energy from a nearby solar field. It will produce 20 kg of green hydrogen per hour.
Our partnership in Dubai is a model of how private and public entities can together overcome the hurdles to green hydrogen. These types of projects will improve technology, identify and solve regulatory hurdles and develop safety concepts.
As more governments, municipalities and the industry identify and financially support enough projects, manufacturers will have an order pipeline that justifies further investments in technology and production processes, which will trigger scale effects and ultimately bring down costs. This is the same dynamic that worked for solar power, and it can work for green hydrogen.
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