Renewable energy technologies continue to emerge, and the latest edition is making waves...or dare we say, bubbles.
It’s no secret that our climate crisis is having a climate crisis. As in, we’ve set some very lofty energy goals for the next several decades, but with the political and economic climates being what they are, we’re not sure we can meet them.
Green hydrogen is, for many, the answer. Or at least one of the answers, serving as a rallying cry for those who want to hasten our energy transition. We have the technology to ramp up hydrogen production in lieu of fossil fuels and natural gas, and to change our energy system entirely … but will we?
That depends on several factors. Today, let’s take a look at the role green hydrogen plays in renewable energy. How does it work? Does it hold the potential many claim it does? And what does it mean for you? Let’s find out.
What Is Green Hydrogen?
Hydrogen fuel could be a game-changer. When used in a fuel cell, it creates no emissions, with water as its only by-product. It has “green revolution” written all over it.
“The demand for hydrogen reached an estimated 87 million metric tons (MT) in 2020, and is expected to grow to 500–680 million MT by 2050,” the World Bank Group reports. “From 2020 to 2021, the hydrogen production market was valued at $130 billion and is estimated to grow up to 9.2% per year through 2030.”
Moreover, says the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world has thrown its weight behind hydrogen: “The momentum behind hydrogen is strong. Nine countries – which cover around 30% of global energy sector emissions today – released their national strategies in 2021-2022.”
But what exactly is it?
Green Hydrogen: A Truly Clean Energy Source
Green hydrogen is pure hydrogen captured through the electrolysis of water. Using an electric current, electrolyzers (also written as electrolysers) separate good old H20 into hydrogen and oxygen ions. They are then collected separately et voilà: green hydrogen production.
Unlike fossil fuels, which release large amounts of carbon dioxide and other types of greenhouse gas during electricity generation, the only by-product of burning hydrogen is water.
Green Hydrogen’s Cousins: Grey and Blue
The problem? Most hydrogen isn’t created cleanly. It isn’t, in fact, green.
“If the electricity comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydro, then the hydrogen is effectively green,” explains Greentech Media. “The only carbon emissions are from those embodied in the generation infrastructure.”
But most of today’s hydrogen comes from carbonaceous materials – which is a fancy way of saying fossil fuels. Grey hydrogen, for instance, is made by methane reforming (alternately, reforming methane), a process in which methane from natural gas is heated along with steam to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This type of gasification can be made a little more climate-friendly with carbon capture, but it still isn’t truly green. Only hydrogen production from renewable sources can be.
However, “Low-emission hydrogen production remained below 1% of global hydrogen production in 2022,” the IEA says. We need to get that number up.
How Does Green Hydrogen Help Meet Climate Goals?
To meet our climate goals, we’ll need a hodgepodge of solutions. We need 100% renewable electricity, yes, but we also need clean energies that mesh well with existing ones. For instance, green hydrogen can be used to power more conventional technology such as gas turbines.
Energy demand is rising all the time across the world, and with it, energy security issues. To address the climate crisis without turning the lights off, we need a new energy source – or, more accurately, many new energy sources. We need to power everything from the internet to electric vehicles, shopfronts to heavy industry.
Therefore, if we want clean technologies to replace current fossil fuel-based ones, we need to make them affordable. Happily, green hydrogen is on track to do that.
“If electrolyzer manufacturing can scale up, and costs continue to fall, then our calculations suggest renewable hydrogen could be produced for $0.7 to $1.6/kg in most parts of the world before 2050,” says Bloomberg Finance, using 2020 calculations.
“This is equivalent to gas priced at $6-12/MMBtu,” they continue, “making it competitive with current natural gas prices in Brazil, China, India, Germany and Scandinavia on an energy-equivalent basis, and cheaper than producing hydrogen from natural gas or coal with carbon capture and storage.”
That last piece is key. What carbon-based fuel has going for its price? If green hydrogen can become a true competitor, then we won’t need agonizing legislation to force a switch … it will become a market-smart no-brainer.
But hydrogen is everywhere. It’s the most abundant element in the universe by an impressive lead, accounting for between 75 and 90 percent of it, depending on who you believe and how the numbers are tallied. In other words, we’ve got a lot of it to work with.
It has other benefits as well, such as the fact that it can be stored for long periods. Unlike batteries, which struggle to keep electricity in place, hydrogen is tailor-made for long-haul, large-scale storage, because all you have to do is bottle it up.
It’s also a more potent fuel source. As the Columbia Climate School explains, “Pound for pound, hydrogen contains almost three times as much energy as fossil fuels, so less of it is needed to do any work.”
Last but certainly not least, you can make it anywhere you can stick an electrolyzer and some water. All you need is the energy to power the device, and if that’s from renewable energy sources, then you have 100% carbon-free technology.
It’s not all perfect, of course. Some critics, such as the Sierra Club, pointed out that “When hydrogen is combusted, it does not produce carbon emissions, but it does produce NOx emissions up to six times worse than those released by methane combustion.” Still, this is a better solution than fossil fuels, which are, at a minimum, running out. That means they’re not the long-term solution we need by the middle of this century, and certainly not by the end of it.
Plus, this doesn’t happen when we use hydrogen energy in fuel cells. As these can be utilized in everything from vehicles to industrial processes for low-cost power generation, it’s looking good for green hydrogen.
How Can You Utilize This Growing Market?
America isn’t the only one racing to create incentives and nail down a regulatory roadmap for the widespread use of hydrogen. The European Union, China, Germany, Japan, Australia, India, and Spain are doing the same.
The question now is, how do we make the hydrogen economy a reality as quickly as possible?
First things first, we need more energy storage to meet decarbonization goals. Whether we create green hydrogen from wind or solar power or another means, we need somewhere to put it until it’s needed.
Second, we need better transportation. At the moment, hydrogen is typically produced and used on-site, and we lack the means to get it from A to B. The more we can distribute it, the more we can grow the hydrogen market and enhance the value chain.
This is great news for developers. You can be part of that chain by contributing to storage, transportation, logistics, interconnection, or clean energy-based hydrogen production. And Transect can help by showing you exactly where the potential lies.