The hydrogen moment has finally arrived
HYDROGEN A controversial since the tragedy of the Hindenburg, a filled airship that caught fire in 1937. Boosters say gas is a low-carbon miracle that can power cars and homes. The hydrogen economy, they hope, will redraw the energy map. Skeptics note that several hydrogen investment campaigns since the 1970s have ended in tears as the gas shortcomings were exposed. As we explain, the reality lies between the two. Hydrogen technologies could eliminate perhaps a tenth of current greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That’s no big deal, but, given the scale of the energy transition, crucial and lucrative .
Hydrogen is not a primary energy source like petroleum or coal. It is best to think of it as an energy carrier, similar to electricity, and as a storage medium, like a battery. It must be manufactured. Low carbon energy sources such as renewables and nuclear power can be used to separate water (H2O) in its constituents of oxygen and hydrogen. It is inefficient and expensive, but the costs go down. Hydrogen can also be made from dirty fossil fuels but this emits a lot of pollution unless it is coupled with technologies that capture carbon and sequester it. Hydrogen is flammable and bulky compared to many fuels. The relentless laws of thermodynamics mean that the conversion of primary energy into hydrogen and then hydrogen into usable energy leads to waste.
All of this explains the delicate history of gas. The oil shocks of the 1970s led to research on hydrogen technologies, but they never got very far. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union even flew a hydrogen airliner – the maiden flight lasted just 21 minutes.
Today, climate change is causing a new wave of enthusiasm. More than 350 large projects are underway, and cumulative investments could reach $ 500 billion by 2030. Morgan Stanley, a bank, estimates that annual hydrogen sales could reach $ 600 billion by 2050. C ‘ is up from $ 150 billion in sales today, which mostly come from industrial processes, including the manufacture of fertilizers. India will soon hold an auction for hydrogen and Chile is holding tenders for its production on public land. More than a dozen countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Japan and South Korea, have national hydrogen plans.
In the midst of the excitement, it’s worth being clear about what hydrogen can and can’t do. Japanese and South Korean companies want to sell cars that use hydrogen fuel cells, but battery-powered cars are about twice as energy efficient. Some European countries hope to get hydrogen into homes, but heat pumps are more efficient and some pipes cannot handle gas safely. Some large energy companies and petro-states want to use natural gas to produce hydrogen without effectively capturing the associated carbon, but this does not eliminate the emissions.
Instead, hydrogen can help in niche markets, involving complex chemical processes and high temperatures hard to achieve with electricity. Steel companies, which emit around 8% of global emissions, depend on coking coal and blast furnaces that wind power cannot replace but hydrogen can replace, using a process known as direct reduction . Hybrit, a Swedish consortium, sold the world’s first green steel made this way in August.
Another niche is commercial transportation, especially for journeys beyond the range of batteries. Hydrogen trucks can beat their battery-powered rivals with faster refueling, more cargo space and greater range. Cummins, an American company, is betting on them. Hydrogen-derived fuels can also be useful in aviation and navigation. Alstom, a French company, circulates hydrogen locomotives on European tracks.
Finally, hydrogen can be used as a material to store and transport bulk energy. Renewable grids struggle when the wind dies or it gets dark. Batteries can help, but if renewable energy is converted to hydrogen, it can be stored cheaply for long periods of time and converted into electricity on demand. A Utah power plant plans to store the gas in caverns to supply California. Sunny and windy places without transmission links can export clean energy in the form of hydrogen. Australia, Chile and Morocco hope to “send sunshine” to the world.
With so much money accumulating in hydrogen, the list of its uses can go on. Much of the work falls to the private sector, but governments can do their part. One task is to crack down on greenwashing: Hydrogen made from dirty fuels without high quality carbon capture will not help the climate. New rules are needed to measure and disclose life cycle emissions from hydrogen production and, as it will be traded across borders, these require international agreement.
The rainmakers are settling in
The government should also encourage poles where different hydrogen users cluster together, thus minimizing the need for duplicating infrastructure. These are already emerging at Humberside in Great Britain and Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Hydrogen has its limits, but it can play a vital role in producing cleaner energy. ■
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This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “Hydrogen’s hope and hype”