Already in the 1990s, Jeremy Rifkin was predicting an industrial revolution in which we would abandon fossil fuels and satisfy our energy needs with hydrogen. Thirty years later, Rifkin's revolution has still not happened and hydrogen has been a kind of ‘sleeping beauty’ in the energy arena.
Hydrogen has undeniable advantages as its combustion produces energy but no greenhouse gases. Moreover, burning hydrogen does not generate pollutants such as particulates, NOx and SOx.
Unfortunately, hydrogen does not exist naturally and must be manufactured. Global hydrogen production is approximately 100 million tons per year, more than 90% of which is used to produce fertilizers and to improve the quality of hydrocarbon products in refineries.
Currently most of the hydrogen is used as a component of other products rather than to generate energy. In addition, paradoxically more than 95% of the global hydrogen consumption is obtained from hydrocarbons, mainly methane - the so-called grey hydrogen. The production of green hydrogen generated by electrolysis of water using electricity produced from renewable sources is still limited to niche applications. Another type is blue hydrogen in which the CO2 generated by the production of hydrogen from fossil fuels is permanently stored underground in a process called Carbon Capture and Storage. This option is still more expensive than grey hydrogen.
There are however recent developments which could change the role of green hydrogen in the energy mix and make it a key element of the clean energy transition
If Governments are serious about their climate objectives, as agreed in Paris in 2015, a considerable part of the fossil fuels should remain underground. However, even if we will be able to produce all electricity from renewables there are sectors that, at this stage, cannot be electrified and would need fossil fuels. In those sectors such as energy intensive industry, maritime, air and heavy transport, green hydrogen could provide a decarbonized alternative to fossil fuels.
Moreover, several industries are committed to achieving climate neutrality by 2050 or even earlier. If such industries mobilize the technology and the investments to tackle the climate challenge, green hydrogen will have a key role to play.
Finally, in the past few years, the cost of electricity produced from renewables has fallen dramatically and, in some cases, it has become competitive with electricity from fossil fuels. In addition, industry is working to produce bigger and more efficient electrolysers. These developments could make the cost of green hydrogen competitive with grey hydrogen. The Hydrogen Council indicates that over the next decade the cost of green hydrogen from renewables could be cut by half.
Projects in pipeline
On a global scale, several projects and initiatives confirm a renewed interest for hydrogen.
In April 2019, Snam, a major utility for natural gas, was the first company in Europe to introduce a mix of 5% hydrogen and gas in its transmission network. The one-month trial, supplied the hydrogen gas mixture to a pasta factory and a mineral water bottling company near Salerno. Bloomberg, quoted the project as the "first pasta" cooked with hydrogen.
Snam reckons that adding 5% of hydrogen to the total gas transported annually in Italy (70 billion cubic meters) would allow CO2 emissions to be reduced by 2.5 million tons, corresponding to the total emissions of all cars in the city of Rome.
Yara and Engie launched the Murchinson project in Australia with the aim of building a 5000MW solar and wind plant for production of green hydrogen .
In Chile Enaex and Engie aim to generate 350,000 tons of ammonia with hydrogen from renewable sources. The project that will replace grey hydrogen with green hydrogen will reduce emissions from the ammonia production plant by 600,000 tons of CO2 per year.
The hydrogen valley project was launched in the Netherlands to convert the existing network of gas pipelines and use it to transport hydrogen. The country has a well-developed infrastructure for transporting gas produced in the huge Groningen field but gas production there was reduced as it seems to generate earthquakes in the area.
Some of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa hold large reserves of hydrocarbons but also benefit from up to 4,000 hours of sun per year. Some of these countries started massive investments in renewables and some experts predict that in future they could export green hydrogen generated from renewable sources.
A futuristic project envisages an energy system in Europe based half on indigenous renewable electricity and the other half on green hydrogen partially produced in North Africa. The project proposes to repurpose existing gas pipelines connecting North Africa to Europe to transport green hydrogen produced in the southern part of the Mediterranean.
Morocco, which holds the largest global reserves of phosphate, is a huge producer of fertilizers. The country plans to produce green hydrogen for fertilizer production replacing gray hydrogen derived from natural gas. The size of the project will be around 100MW with a production capacity of 100,000 tons of green hydrogen per year.
In the European Union, the association Hydrogen Europe promotes a massive deployment of electrolysers for production of green hydrogen. In their 2x40 GW Green Hydrogen Initiative paper the industry association presents a roadmap for a 40 GW electrolyser capacity in the EU by 2030 complemented by an additional 40 GW capacity in neighboring countries. They advocate that by realizing a 2x40 GW electrolysers, producing green hydrogen, about 82 million tons of CO2 emissions per year could be avoided in the EU.
Finally, on 8 July 2020, the European Commission will adopt a Communication on a European hydrogen strategy indicating priorities and targets for a quick roll out of hydrogen.
A widespread use of green hydrogen in the future energy mix would allow to overcome some of the major hurdles to achieving climate neutrality.
Green hydrogen could avoid emissions in sectors that are not currently electrifiable, such as energy intensive industry, air, maritime and heavy transport. It could also provide CO2 free feedstock for the production of fertilizers.
Moreover, hydrogen could store energy in order to balance, when necessary, the production of electricity from variable renewable sources as wind and photovoltaics which are subject to daytime and seasonal production variability.
At geopolitical level, replacing hydrocarbon with hydrogen in petrostates would promote the clean energy transition and at the same time generate jobs and revenue avoiding social instability and the necessity for people to migrate. Currently, 60% of the oil and 80% of the gas produced in North Africa countries is directed to Europe representing the primary component of exports for this region.
In conclusion hydrogen could play a key role in the clean energy transition. However, it will not be the “holy grail” and the solution to climate change will come from a basket of options besides hydrogen such as increased use of renewables, energy efficiency, a shift from coal to gas and carbon capture and storage.
The views expressed by the author are strictly personal and do not reflect the positions of the European Commission or ISPI.