The Role of Green Hydrogen in the Energy Transition
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
What I can tell by tracking clean energy transitions regularly that hydrogen is having the kind of momentum it never had before.
No doubt, there were some moments of interest in hydrogen before but those were cyclic in nature but this time around I see hydrogen being adopted by a number of countries, sectors, and companies for a variety of reasons not only from energy decarbonisation perspective but also from energy diversification and energy security perspectives, etc.
In my opinion, there are three main reasons for this unprecedented moment:
➡️Need for Higher Renewables Integration: As the penetration of intermittent renewables increases hydrogen can prove to be an optimized coupling to provide long term storage compared to the short capacity of battery storage at the moment.
➡️Aggressive Decarbonisation Targets: Many countries have set up ambitious decarbonisation targets and this is where hydrogen come into play due to versatile nature of hydrogen it offers a number of possibilities to decarbonize even hard to abate sectors (steel, chemicals, trucks, ships, and planes)
➡️Enhance Energy Security: Hydrogen being the versatile medium can transform into a number of chemical compositions offering a diversification of fuel mix hence providing energy security.
Renewables have already become the cheapest source of electricity in almost every country in the world today and still continue to be cheaper and more efficient. The most important thing that needs attention here is that even though renewables are nearly half of our electricity demand but electricity itself is only a quarter of our total energy consumption. It is because most of the energy intensive sectors (heating, transportation, some heavy industry, aviation, shipping etc.) still get their energy from fossil fuels that is less efficient than electricity. We need to electrify as much of this other energy as we can using renewables energy sources.
But the bitter truth is that no matter how hard we can try there are going to be some industrial processes and heavy transport that can’t be electrified at all with the present technology and will have to run on some form of fuel.
While many are still scratching their heads about what to do when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing yet electricity demand is low. If that’s the case then why not feed two birds with one scone. When electricity demand is low and the renewables supply is abundant then we can use the excess electricity to produce hydrogen using electrolysis. The versatile nature of hydrogen makes it a great candidate for number of applications and to power sectors that can’t be directly electrified.
As I write this piece, there are a number of small scale projects around the world attempting just this. For example, most countries in northern Europe, including the UK, use natural gas to heat their homes. If Britain decide to abandon gas and use electricity for heating, it would require a four- or five-fold increase in the capacity of the electricity network overnight, according to UK’s National Grid. There is a very strong future for gas and we can decarbonise the gas a lot by producing hydrogen or biogas to inject into the gas network.
Some of the challenges that hydrogen need to overcome in order to become the next big clean energy industry like the way solar PV, wind or battery storage have become is
➡️Cost of hydrogen production need to fall down
➡️Source of hydrogen production: There is an urgent need for the production of clean hydrogen as of today most of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels responsible for tons of GHGs emissions
➡️Demand oriented infrastructure expansion for transmission and distribution of hydrogen.
The recent successes of solar PV, wind, batteries and electric vehicles have shown that policy and technology innovation have the power to build global clean energy industries.
In my opinion, as hydrogen is enjoying unprecedented political and business momentum, this is the right time for national and local governments, industry and investors to work together to scale up technologies and bring down costs to allow hydrogen to become widely used.