Green Hydrogen: Fuel of the Future?

The world is undergoing a rapidly evolving, low-carbon energy transition. Seeking solutions, we turn to hydrogen, the most abundant and simple chemical structure in the universe. It’s light, storable and energy-dense. 

The perfect solution. But here’s the snag – it’s incredibly rare for hydrogen to exist in its purest form. It must be separated from the other elements, using fossil fuels, nuclear energy, biomass or renewable energy.

Hydrogen could be the fuel of the future. In particular, green hydrogen has tremendous potential to decarbonise the chemical, industrial and transportation sectors. But how can we ensure that green hydrogen delivers on this potential? 

What is green hydrogen, and how is it made? 

Hydrogen itself is invisible, so what does the colour-coding mean? The ‘colours’ of hydrogen refer to how it’s produced. Hydrogen can be grey, blue or green depending on production methods, or sometimes even pink, yellow or turquoise.

As of 2019, 95% of the world’s hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels such as natural gas through the steam methane reforming process. This is a carbon-intensive process – 7kg of CO2 on average to produce 1kg hydrogen. While the steam methane reforming process can be coupled with carbon capture and storage technology to cut CO2 emissions, the cost of producing hydrogen carbon capture and storage is high, as is the cost of CO2 avoidance.

Green hydrogen is the variety that’s produced in a climate-neutral manner, produced using clean energy from renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power. Electrolysis is used to split water into two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

The oxygen produced by the electrolysis also has market value, in industrial and medical applications.

What are the benefits of green hydrogen?

It utilises the intermittency of renewables to its advantage, storing excess energy at times of low demand, energy that can be fed back into the grid when demand rises. Building electrolysers at locations with strong renewable resource could become a low-cost supply option for hydrogen.

Green hydrogen also has the potential to decarbonise the chemical, industrial and transportation sectors. These sectors tend to cluster at major industrial ports, offering great opportunities to build combined infrastructure, especially as hydrogen is often already produced at ports to feed local chemical factories and refineries. 

Developing countries could benefit from the move toward a hydrogen economy, becoming significant exporters of renewable energy through the hydrogen supply chain. They could harness their renewable energy resources to produce hydrogen, exporting the excess outside their own demand to other countries, as is already done with liquefied natural gas.

The challenges of green hydrogen 

In order to achieve a hydrogen economy where it could be used for long-term energy storage and for long-distance transportation of low-carbon energy, the cost of hydrogen would need to come down to levels that’d be competitive with natural gas. Hydrogen from renewable electricity is two to three times more expensive than that produced from natural gas. If solar and wind costs fall, then green hydrogen will become more affordable. 

In addition, global governments will be crucial in determining if hydrogen will prove a success. Many projects rely on government funding, policies need to be in place to encourage the private sector to secure long-term supplies of clean hydrogen. Progress also needs to be made on the international hydrogen trade, figuring out the best way to ship hydrogen over long distances. 

So could green hydrogen realistically be the fuel of the future? 

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the answer is yes

But on the current trajectory, a fuel of the ‘future’ it’ll likely remain, unless we can overcome the challenges that obstruct a green hydrogen economy from being a present and commonplace reality.

So what’s needed, to make this happen? Information needs to be shared, so that the key industry players and policymakers are aware of the latest trends and technologies. Governments will need to develop a strategy, roadmap and regulatory framework for hydrogen energy development. The financing of hydrogen energy projects will be crucial, including production, transportation and infrastructure.

It is certainly within our reach – governments including those of Germany, Britain, Australia and Japan are working on or have announced hydrogen strategies. Australia has set aside A$300 million ($191 million) to jumpstart hydrogen projects. Portugal plans a new solar-powered hydrogen plant which will produce hydrogen by electrolysis by 2023. The Netherlands unveiled a hydrogen strategy in late March, outlining plans for 500 megawatts (MW) of green electrolyser capacity by 2025.

To overcome the barriers to green hydrogen and reduce the costs, action will need to be taken. But there’s certainly potential for hydrogen to play a crucial role in a clean, secure and affordable energy future.

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